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Disneyland debuts changes to 'It's a Small World' [with video]

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Published: February 5, 2009 at 3:20 PM

There is no theme park attraction more fondly despised than Disney's "It's a Small World."

It's a Small World

Hate it. Love it. Love it. Hate it. Riders' reactions to this musical boat ride swing back and forth like Faye Dunaway getting slapped around by Jack Nicholson at the end of "Chinatown."

For many, "It' a Small World" exemplifies the cliche "too much of a good thing." The first time you hear it, the Shermans Brothers' cheery musical theme delights, full of sunshine and optimism. Mary Blair's vibrant design smartly encases early 20th-century Americana within a context of 1960's mod style, with hundreds of same-sized, same-shaped dolls performing the Shermans' tune.

A few moments into your first ride, the music and setting refresh your spirit with a deep breath of good cheer and optimism. But by the end of the 10-minute ride, the constant repetition - of dolls and of music - has reduced the experience to theme park minimalism. It's Philip Glass, if he'd been commissioned by your local kindergarten.

Of course, some people cherish "It's a Small World," and wouldn't change a thing. (And some people adore "Einstein on the Beach," too, but no one's building a theme park for them. At least, not if there is a God.) Unfortunately for those the first folks, the wardens of "Small World," Disney's Imagineers have made changes. And those are debuting to the public tomorrow (not today, as many local media reported).

Today, I got an advance look, taking a couple ride-throughs the new "It's a Small World," one with with Kim Irvine, who is Director, Concept Design at Walt Disney Imagineering.

And here it is:

Didya notice anything different? If you've not been reading any theme park-related websites for the past year or so, here are a few clues:

Alice and the White Rabbit Aladdin and Jasmine
The Little Mermaid Sheriff Woody and Bullseye

Yep, they've put Disney toons in "It's a Small World."

But what about the ride's theme of children from around the world coming together, in goodness and song and purity and light?

Get a grip, people. If there's anything that unifies the children of the world today, watching Disney characters may very well be it. Disney's taken care to weave the characters within the context of the ride, gently slipping a few notes from various movie themes into the dominate melody, as welcomed counterpoints to the main theme. For the most part, the characters fit, though I would have preferred a more stylized Flounder (from "The Little Mermaid") and smaller Woody and Jessie dolls in the new American West scene, to better fit within Blair's original look.

Here's Irvine's response when I asked her about how the changes have affected the ride:

The addition of the Disney characters adds a competitive element to riding: How many characters did you see? There are many: Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Aladdin, Jasmine, Abu, Mulan, Mushu, Ariel, Flounder, Lilo, Stitch, Nemo, Dory, Woody, Jessie.... some obvious, others well camouflaged.

But doesn't competition undermine the thematic ideal of children coming together? I can hear the wardens nag. Have you ever watched an Olympics? Or seen a mob of third-grade boys crowded around a Wii?

Disney's changes to Small World might just do the impossible. No, not bring about world peace. These changes might just make people getting off "It's a Small World"... want to turn right around and ride it again.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on February 5, 2009 at 3:51 PM
No matter how terrifying the ride is, its better without the Disney Characters! Though I will say that they seem to be tastefully done to keep it with the rest of the theme.
From Nick Markham on February 5, 2009 at 4:24 PM
I was worried that adding these characters might mess up the ride, but they made the Disney figures so that they blend in with the others (did you notice the difference)? Anyway, I think Disney pulled it off once again, as thy always do!
From steve lee on February 5, 2009 at 4:36 PM
Robert said "But doesn't competition undermine the thematic ideal of children coming together?"

Um, no offense intended Robert, but isn't the thematic ideal of children coming together already undermined by the fact that the ride is in FANTASYLAND?

From James Rao on February 5, 2009 at 4:47 PM
The ride is great for families with very young kids, and a great place to refresh on a hot day. If Disney wants to keep it relevant for today's kids by introducing familiar Disney characters...then so be it. I have no problem with the changes.

And thanks, Robert, for the scoop!

From Ryan Sanford on February 5, 2009 at 5:15 PM
I think the ride is better without the disney characters. The Disney characters are not really relevant to the ride.
Hopefully they don't do this to WDW.
From Jason Jackson on February 5, 2009 at 5:35 PM
Having ridden It's a Small World at the 1964 World's Fair, this is truly a fond memory for me. Good for Disney to freshen the ride up a bit. Of course I think that the ultimate torture would be to be stuck on the ride, but it does hold a special place in my heart...great now I can't get the song out of my head!
From Robert Niles on February 5, 2009 at 5:53 PM
steve lee: +1 - excellent snark. :-)
From Andy Guinigundo on February 5, 2009 at 6:10 PM
I don't know how this is any different than Jack Sparrow in Pirates (which I like), but somehow THIS doesn't feel right to me. I remember my kids as 1-3 years old riding Small World for the first time and looking around in wonder not - "hey there's Stitch!"

People may call me an overly nostalgic drip, but the Imagineers are not infallible. In this case, they can spin it whatever way they like, but I am not a fan of the changes.

From Corey Romberg on February 5, 2009 at 6:38 PM
I love love love the idea of adding Disney characters to the ride. I think every ride that can add some Disney movie-magic touch should...everyone is happy that DCA is becoming Disney-ified, and this is the same idea with its a small world..the characters blend in nicely so that they don't change the story or effect of the ride, they simply enhance the experience...Disney purists love to hate when classic Disney rides are changed, but the changes to Pirates and Haunted Mansion have been greeted with nothing but praise, so have some faith in WDI...I consider myself a Disney purist, and I love when old rides get makeovers, because after all, it is Walt who said the parks will never be complete; they will always be changing, for the good; same with the rides

Kudos to Disney for a very welcome, suddle change to a beloved classic

From Tim W on February 5, 2009 at 7:37 PM
I'm not a huge fan but honestly its not that big of a deal. They could have ripped everything out and silenced the song, but they just added some disney characters. I love the classics but honestly this won't be causing such a big stir by next year. adding disney charcters won't stop people from going on the attraction Will it?
From Corey Romberg on February 5, 2009 at 7:47 PM
I also noticed Cinderella and her 2 mice friends, Sebastian, Bullseye and the Three Caballeros, ones that weren't on Robert's original list, bringing the grand total, as far as I can see, to 25 new Disney characters....it seems to me that a lot of things that were already there were updated as well...the whole ride just seems more fresh and new looking...I also really like the American scene...its only fitting that a cruise around the earth would include America
From W McDougal on February 5, 2009 at 9:10 PM
I'm not a fan of inserting Disney characters in the ride since it takes away from the theme of children around the world in harmony. I guess the theme is now that children around the world playing with Disney characters will bring pace.
Much worse is the insertion of the America scene at the expense of the rain forest. We're already in America as we enter the ride. The whole point is that we're taking a trip around the world, not around the block. It doesn't make sense for any Small World iteration to contain a scene from the park's home country. Its inclusion smacks of nothing more than a cloying marketing sop to nativists. And that completely defeats the ride's original theme.
From Brian L on February 5, 2009 at 9:59 PM
I've never ridden the California version (or for that matter ever set foot in that state) so I couldn't really say whether or not this needed an upgrade. I've ridden the Florida version several times for Walt's sake and because it is a classic but never really enjoyed it as much as those riding the West Coast ride obviously. Al Lutz in particular has a a huge problem with the newer version. Is it really that bad that the Disney characters are in there? Again, coming from the East Coast I guess I could never understand the unconditional love of the attraction in Disneyland; but the characters they put in blend in rather well with the scenes (from what I have seen). I figured the Disney characters would be about a foot taller and more detailed (stick out like a sore thumb) than the child dolls but the way the Disney dolls were built, painted, and presented looked similar to the original child AA's. But I do love it when that train goes by and the background color changes with the train cars at the front of the attraction (search for it on Youtube). Thats really neat and a great use of light, color, scenery and movement to create amazing stagecraft.
From Robert Niles on February 5, 2009 at 10:13 PM
The grand finale is much better done in this version, IMHO, with a strong use of colored light on the white dolls and set. If you forget the characters for a moment, the whole ride system seems to flow better with the new boats and the attraction is much brighter, cleaner and more crisp throughout.

We'll have to see if the lower capacity on each boat affects wait times. (I expect them to be bad for the first month, anyway, as Disneyland's hundreds of thousands of annual passholders make their way through the ride.)

From Raul Araoz on February 5, 2009 at 11:05 PM
I strangely don't know what to think. I love the Haunted Mansion redo but feel that Johnny Depp is a little distracting on the Pirates one. I know that Small World definitely needed an update and love the new lighting in particular. For the most part, the characters are well integrated and will appeal to young children. Yet, like Pirates, some stick out like sore thumbs(Woody, Ariel and Nemo). Overall, it seems alright and I am not too bothered by it. However, I hope Disney doesn't decide to overexpose the toons by forcefeeding them into every attraction. I mean if I see Nemo pop-up in Splash Mountain I will flip.
From Andy Guinigundo on February 6, 2009 at 10:14 AM
Future Disney Attractions to include Disney Characters:
- Uncle Sam Goofy in the Hall of Presidents
- Eddie Murphy in Haunted Mansion
- Buzz Lightyear and three-eyed space men in Space Mountain
- Hannah Montana Rockin' Roller Coaster with Aerosmith
- Chip and Dale in safari gear in the Jungle Cruise
- Donald Duck's Carousel of Progress
- Stich in Alien Encounter (oh, already done)
- Tigger's Everest Adventure
- Minnie and Daisy's Spaceship Earth

Hey, maybe this is all an Imagineer scheme. How much talk about Small World talk has there been in the last 3-4 decades besides the boats (reportedly) being increased in size because we're all fat...err...evolved.

From Corey Romberg on February 6, 2009 at 1:06 PM
I actually wouldnt mind Buzz Lightyear and three-eyed space men in Space Mountain, Hannah Montana Rockin' Roller Coaster with Aerosmith, Chip and Dale in safari gear in the Jungle Cruise, and Donald Duck's Carousel of Progress haha
From Carrie McMahon on February 6, 2009 at 3:53 PM
I can't wait to see it in person for myself, but from the video it seems as if the general integrity has been preserved. I must say I wish they would have just made the new dolls additions, instead of replacing memories. For example I miss the little surfer guy that was always there on the surfboard. Couldn't a second board have been added with Lilo and Stitch I wish the original mermaid was still in the center of the shell and maybe Arial could have been added in another scenerio. Its refurbishments like this that continue to remove the memories and that is what I don't like, just little by little chipping away from the original magic. I guess I never understood why things had to be removed. I also agree with the other people who think Jessie and Woodie look a bit large? Whats that about? Overall it isn't as offensive as the changes made to Pirates and the absolute horror of a tomorrowland we have to put up with. At least it wasn't as bad as I imagined. However I didn't really see much comment about the boats. The original premise made by Disney was that we were all too fat for the old ones. So are the new ones any better, more roomy? The Disney people have California Adventure now why not just make that the "new" park and leave the original and beloved Disneyland the way it should be.

Thanks for the video and giving us a chance to see what to expect. Great job!!!

From Chloe ! on February 6, 2009 at 5:01 PM
Yay! I'm happy their fianlly done with it! I don't really get why they added the Disney characters to the ride, but oh well. I'm going to Disneyland on Monday, so that will be fun.
From Robert Niles on February 6, 2009 at 6:08 PM
There's no way to tell how the new boats will hold up until they've been subjected to a busy day, with the queue filled and ride operating at capacity. The boats look fine, were reasonably comfortable, and now hold three people per row, instead of the previous four. I suspect they'll go two adults and a child per row, max, instead of putting three adults in one.

With fewer passengers per boat, you've got less weight, reducing the odds of a boat dragging the bottom and getting stuck. I also notice that the cast members at load were being very careful to assign people to rows in a way that would evenly distribute weight on the boat. Again, it's up to Disney to ensure that training doesn't get forgotten over time, too.

From David Sutter on February 7, 2009 at 7:03 AM
Well another attraction, which was mastered by Walt himself changed...Dang! Hay, "Its A Small World" You hate but love it at the same time...It an odd thing. May hate the fact Im asking, but why? Ok rehab, but change with the characters? Why?... It was done to the Tiki Room in WDW...And the show now stinks...And it runs shorter..Been to it a few times..and just dont care for it, and most people I talk with hate it just as much...And...Johnny Depp in PofC ok not bad..but hes auto makes the old ones look lame..And the musics now gone...Again another Walt Classic gone...or changed....One would hope the Imagaineers would be a little more creative...Im starting to belive that all the brand esssncing of the movies is geting a little much at both Magic Kingdom and Disneyland...anyone agree?
From Corey Romberg on February 7, 2009 at 12:19 PM
For all the people complaining that a Walt Disney classic has been changed...I am very confident if Walt were still alive, he would be making changes to his classic rides more often than WDI is

From reading many bios on Walt and taking classes about him, he was a perfectionist to the extreme...that's why I can't envision him wanting any attraction to stick around too long without being replaced if it wasn't crowded enough, for he would say, "why do we keep this silly ride when we can replace it with a ride more people will go on", or have changes made to rides like Pirates, HM, and small world, to keep up with a new generation of visitors

He always loved Disneyland because unlike a movie, where once its in theaters it has to stay the same forever, Disneyland would never be finished, and could always be changed and updated to his liking...His first Mickey cartoon, "Plane Crazy" was made without sound (because synchronized sound was not usable until the next cartoon, "Steamboat Willie"), but he went back and added sound to the short film once sound was available...he also went back and colorized some of his old black and white toons

So, I truly believe Walt would be very proud of the changes to its a small world, and I bet he is, up in Heaven...Marty Sklar was asked what Walt would say about Disneyland today: "he would say, what took you guys so long?!" and I think he'd say the same thing about adding Disney characters to the ride

From W McDougal on February 7, 2009 at 12:56 PM
Walt supported change and evolution of the park, but he wanted it done well. While it's certainly a matter of opinion, many believe that the changes to PotC and IaSW were changes for the worse. You can't assume that Walt would like the new IaSW simply because it was changed. By your logic, any change, such as dolls that strip naked, would have been supported by Walt.
From Corey Romberg on February 7, 2009 at 3:10 PM
Youre right, the change would have to be well done for Walt to like them, and I believe they were.

I believe he would have supported the Pirates changes because, by adding Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbosa, they were keeping up with a new generation of riders who associated PotC more with the films than the ride

He would have supported changes to Haunted Mansion Jungle Cruise because they enhanced the ride's effects, and he was always in favor of new technology to enhance rides

And he would have supported Small Word because the creative vision and original story were not changed, just enhanced...the adding of Disney characters allows the ride to appeal to a younger generation of riders who associate with these characters...Im sure kids are having a blast pointing out Nemo and Dori and Ariel and Flounder and Stitch and Woody...after all, Disneyland is for kids, or kids at heart...and Walt was very proud of his animated creatures and people, and he would love any opportunity to incorporate them into his rides, as long as it makes sense, which this does

Obviously no one know what Walt REALLY would think...but I base these opinions on extensive research and knowledge about Walt: his personality, his opinion on the park, and his love for his animated creations

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