Further thoughts on Marty’s letter about “it’s a small world”

I’ve been thinking a bit more about what was disturbing about Marty’s open-letter to Disney fans. I can overlook the fact that it was all corporate spin, and a blatant attempt to get Disney Fans to hush up. It’s maddening that they would treat their fans that way, but understandable. The fact is the letter didn’t address any of the concerns being raised about the change. It was essentially a take it or leave it situation.

And as Ken reminds us in his comment, that is certainly an option. The reality is the Walt Disney Company is just another company producing what is just another entertainment option in a world that is full of options. But for those of us who love the Disney product the reality is it isn’t just another company. It’s a legacy and it is important from time to time to remind the Disney company that they’re being trusted with that legacy. It happened when they wanted to rip out Mr. Lincoln and it happened when Eisner strayed too far from the legacy.

There are plenty of signs that the current management gets this. I want to have faith that we can trust Bob Iger and Uncle John. But the proof is in the pudding. So let’s see what Marty was baking up in his letter.

If we read between the lines, I think what Marty’s letter was trying to tell us is that 8 years ago the powers that be had IASW in the cross-hairs and that Imagineering jumped into action with a plan to save it. This plan is what they came up with so fans should be happy that we’re not currently hearing another story about them ripping out IASW in its entirety.

I realize that this is the new reality of The Disney Company. It’s all about metrics. Are the labor hours justified by the attraction throughput? That simple equation has driven more change at Disneyland than any other reason since Frank Wells died. They no longer look at the park in its entirety as a theme park experience. They see it as a series of small parts, each of which must stand on its own or suffer the consequences. (This was literally the case under Eisner where every Churro cart and Hot Dog stand had to make 20% or be torn out.)

When cost per guest is the equation the only choice Imagineering feels left with is to “make it relevant” to todays audience. On the surface, that’s a good plan. Making a change that taps into current trends is a proven method of bringing in the crowds. Hence we get Tarzan’s Treehouse, Pirates on Tom Sawyer Island, Captain Jack in POTC, Winnie the Pooh in place of Country Bears, etc. But when those changes are based on modern day trends you run into a problem where you have to continually update the attraction every few years to stay current. The crowds get hooked on “what’s new” and quickly die out when the new becomes old.

It’s much more difficult to build an attraction that will stand the test of time. Disney Imagineers, led by Tony Baxter of all people, knew this when they replaced the Nature’s Wonderland area with Big Thunder Mountain. He knew it when they made over Fantasyland. There was no attempt to make the attractions more relevant for modern audiences by introducing modern characters or trendy themes. Just an attempt to plus the show, replace what you could with modern technologies, rip out what would no longer work (MMC revue), and put in something new that would stand the test of time.

That is the type of change Walt Disney was talking about. Being a “change agent” means making real change based on quality, show, and story. Walt was not concerned with making it relevant. He was concerned with providing the best show he could that would stand the test of time and provide the same quality experience to every guests. If it wasn’t working, he wasn’t afraid of change, but relevancy to modern audiences was a result of doing the best job they possibly could. Quality will win out in the end.

IASW has 40+ years of time tested operation with a great show, classic story, and a unique quality, owing in large part to Mary Blair’s designs, which is part of what made it such a classic. It may be that 40 years is the end of the road for the original story of a child’s prayer for world peace and unity (although I would argue we need it just as much now as we did in 1964). But I don’t think the answer is to make it relevant. Otherwise you have to commit to update it every few years when the next generation comes along. And then what happens to the other generations (tweens don’t drive themselves to the park after all). Are they forgotten? Soon enough even the younger audience will tire of changes. The queue will swell initially, but the audience will tire of the new and the queue will shrink again. Look at Pooh for exhibit #1 and POTC for exhibit #2, both are now walk-ons once the mid-day lines die down.

The thing about adding scenes or Disney characters to IASW is that it’s a half effort. It’s not going to add another 40 years of life to the attraction. Stitch, Woody, Pocahontas, they’ll all be replaced by new Disney branded characters. Stitch isn’t even a child. In five years are they planning to put in High School Musical or Hannah Montana dolls?

Sure, you can make the Aladdin & Jasmine dolls look like Mary Blair and Alice Davis did them themselves, or close enough. Sure you can add in an America scene that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. But neither does anything to add to the story.

(Btw, adding any ‘America’ scene, whether it’s ‘Up with America’ or not, is insulting the very guests who ride. The USA is the host, we don’t need to be in the attraction with our invited guests. When you get to the finale, the USA is there celebrating world unity. That’s enough, anything more is being a rude host. That the people making this change can’t see that basic truth about “it’s a small world”, says a lot about why this change is so wrong.)

Most of all, I’m disappointed that this is the best Imagineering could come up with when faced with a decision to save IASW from the wrecker’s ball of new accounting. There is no vision in this change, just an air of desperation. No respect for the original story or vision of the attraction, just a quick overlay that has nothing to do with the theme of world peace and unity at all. Take it back to the drawing board and show me what Walt Disney’s Imagineers can really do to update a message of world peace and unity from the children of the world.

(Note: I’ve included my previous remarks in response to Marty’s letter here. They were initially posted in the comments of that post.)

First, thank you to Marty Sklar for providing this response. The experience you say is gathered behind these changes is indeed impressive. And I would like nothing more than to say “Great, that’s good enough for me.” But as good as POTC turned out to be, we Disney fans (and some would argue, Walt Disney’s legacy) have been burned much more frequently.

Look at the Pooh attraction replacing the Country Bears or how empty the Rivers of America are without the Keel Boats and Fort Wilderness. Look at how Tomorrowland 1998 fell flat and how the land that is “always on the move” is now so static. At least we have the classic white Space Mountain back. Do I have to remind you about how shabbily Mary Blair’s Tomorrowland Murals were treated? And just where is Mr. Lincoln? I could go on, but you get the picture.

So you can see how we fans feel twice (or more) burned. Now you’ll have to, as the Missourians say, “Show me”.

Yep, we fans want ‘Show’ to come first. If the changes are in-keeping with the story and vision of the attraction and not just the addition of some Disney characters, then great. Show us. What we’ve heard so far, in rumors and bits and pieces, is not in keeping with the original story of the attraction at all.

It would be great if some concept art or examples of how the new dolls will look could be provided. At the start of this controversy, Disneyland released an image of Mary Blair’s Alice sketch, which was not at all in keeping with the look and feel of the ‘it’s a small world’ attraction. That went a long way to fanning the flames. Then the pictures of IASW out of Hong Kong Disneyland surfaced and, frankly, those weren’t so bad. At least when they were just Disney character costumes placed on the typical child dolls of IASW. But the instances where the typical child doll format wasn’t followed (Woody and Bullseye and Stitch come to mind) were awful. Those uses are not in keeping with the spirit or design of the attraction and don’t belong in “it’s a small world”.

Marty, when you wrote

“Now the rumors are swirling that we are ‘ruining Walt’s creation.’ I’ve heard that we are planning to remove the rainforest, add Mickey and Minnie Mouse, create an ‘Up with America’ tribute, to effectively ‘marginalize’ the Mary Blair style and Walt’s classic (all not true).”

I hope we can take you at your word that the opposite is true. The rainforest stays or is plussed. No Mickey and Minnie (except maybe as hidden mickeys). No America tribute (after all we’re the hosts, we don’t need to be prominent in the attraction), and that all the changes will be exactly as if Mary Blair (and Alice Davis for the costumes, I might add) designed them for the original attraction (no Hong Kong Woody or Stitch).

While you’re at it. How about a nice Main Street window ceremony for both Mary and Alice. It’s been long enough. They should be honored.

No one is against change. But we’re cautious so that we can make sure the change is for the better. Is it possible to tastefully layer in some Disney character experiences to ‘it’s a small world’? Sure. But it also would be very easy to shift the focus away from the message of “A Children’s Prayer for World Peace and Unity” that the original attraction provided.

Now we shall wait and see.

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11 Responses to Further thoughts on Marty’s letter about “it’s a small world”

  1. FoxxFur says:

    OK, I’m as opposed to this nonsense as everybody. Being in the sad sad situation of being an “autuer” centered critic writing about theme design, Small World is one of the very best and earliest attractions to significantly have the fingerprints of a very select group of individuals all over it in very discrete elements. Adding an America section is as tasteless as it is unnecessary, and remember I’m the same person who said recently that we shouldn’t even have a pavilion in World Showcase! But adding recognizable characters has been a long time in coming – WDW even had a pin set of this very concept based on WDI concept art a few years back.

    I think there’s a third factor entering here which people aren’t recognizing, which is that business units are given a certain amount of money each year that they are expected to spend or write off. I’ve been told that with Disneyland in as nice shape as it is and a lot of money going into DCA, there was floating money left for Disneyland that HAD to be spent or layoffs would ensue. As a result the “extra” money went into It’s Small World since it was having what could adequately be described as an “emergency refurbishment” and there simply was not time to put something else through the design stages.

    I’m not certain that WDI is under the impression that this ‘hot new thing’ will turn IASW into a huge crowd pleaser at Disneyland again or anything, but I do think it’s important that somebody somewhere realize that it could have a much worse effect – turning off guests to Disneyland a.k.a. The Garden of Die-Hards. The Enchanted Tiki Room at WDW is currently enjoying the worst attendance of any attraction – far worse than the treehouse – because people are staying away from the current show. It was hardly pulling big numbers during the Tropical Serenade days but the current version is doing even worse. People who like to fly rumors about the eminent closure of Bears or Carousel of Progress should pay close attention, here. WDI should too.

    I trust WDI, if hesitantly. I do have faith that quality control will be higher than than at Hong Kong Disneyland, where those sets and dolls looked chintzy and cheap it was astounding.

  2. Tim Lenz says:

    For about the third or fourth time, has there been ANY confirmation yet about this much-maligned “Up With America” scene? As far as I can tell, the only addition that Disney has confirmed so far is that of several Disney family characters to the attraction. In fact, I believe there was actually something in that letter that referenced the “America” rumours as just that–unfounded speculation.

    And contrary to your apparent insistence that Marty Sklar is out to kill the Disney dream, and that the entire letter is nothing but company rhetoric, he did try to assuage certain concerns by assuring readers that any additions would be done in ways consistent with the established “Mary Blair” style. This was, in my understanding, one of the major fears about this announced rehab (though I understand that the simple addition of any Disney characters is also considered by many to be distasteful).

    The way I see it, Disney is trying it’s best to be upfront and honest with its guests and customers as to the exact nature and details of these changes, as they’ve obviously caused some concern. And your response seems to be a single-minded negativity, and an insistence on propagating rumours that seem to have no basis or evidence to support them.

    I’m not saying I support the changes, but I don’t see any hint of fair- or open-mindedness in your reporting and commentary of them.

  3. John Frost says:

    Hi Tim,

    There has been confirmation from multiple sources that an America scene has been added. Also that the rainforest scene has been modified (the extent of which I don’t know).

    While Sklar’s letter does not deny the existence of either change, it clearly is meant to make us think they’re not happening as has been rumored. As I state in my post, any America scene is in bad taste at best. Not because I’m not patriotic, but because IASW is our gift, our prayer for peace, to the world.

    I never once stated that Marty Sklar is out to kill the Disney dream. I think his love for Disneyland is as great as any of us. He is clearly being the corporate shill here, a role he has played comfortably in the past. I don’t hold it against him personally. Indeed he is a family friend.

    There is a lot about this situation we fans clearly do not know or understand. Much of it is backstage, financial, factional infighting going on between TDA, WDI, and other factions. I only comment on what I can see and what I hear from official or reliable sources.

    As for ‘keeping Mary Blair’s style’ – recreating her style with Disney Character dolls is not the main issue. There is no doubt talent around to do that. It is adding Disney character dolls at all, something that is inherently counter to the story, vision, and theme of the attraction is the problem. To add those Disney characters cheapens Mary Blair’s design in its entirety. It cheapens all the work done on “it’s a small world”.

    This letter was only a cynical attempt to placate those worried about the changes to the attraction. There was nothing about the exact nature of the changes, it was all obfuscation and spin. They have no intention of preserving the work of Walt Disney, Mary Blair, and the other talented artists or they would have arrived at another solution.

    • Tim Lenz says:

      Thanks for your reply John.

      But I would still very much like to see some reference or factual evidence in these pages from those “official or reliable sources” that proves that the non-Disney-acknowledged changes are planned and/or in progress. Granted, I don’t actively seek out much Disney news outside this blog, but it’s generally because I don’t feel i have to–the journalistic aspect of this “blog” is normally very thorough, and always cites its sources. However, as far as I’ve read (again, only in this blog), it has all been conjecture and hearsay thus far.

      It just strikes me as odd, as Disney is normally pretty open about the nature of the changes occuring in an attraction, at least in a general sense. when pirates was receiving its movie additions, we knew long before the re-opening the major additions that were being made, and that seems to be the standard for disney in recent memory. and in that situation, they were also “messing with a classic attraction”, so it’s not as though they have a history of hiding major changes to classic attractions. if anything, i would imagine that there would be incentive for them to advertise all changes, because it would do nothing but provide publicity and anticipation, whether of the negative or positive variety (let’s face it, even those dreading these changes are still gonna ride it to see them, and some patriots and non-disney purists are probably anticipating them). i just don’t see any reason for them to hide major changes like this. they’ve never done it before.

  4. Rich Koster says:

    Just what we (don’t) need: “it’s a small world, Under New Management” (or “It’s a Small World…” as Marty Sklar wrote it, showing another bit of cluelessness).

  5. Bravoman says:

    The tiny type-face of the Comments (as opposed to the original observations) makes reading them a real eye-straining chore.

  6. Bravoman says:

    Thanks, John. Maybe someone else on this site can lend you a hand. The program seems also to ignore paragraph spacing, which adds to the tight look.

  7. Tuckenie says:

    John I just want to say I really appreciate your thoughtful response to Marty’s letter and that you didn’t attack him outright. I consider myself somewhat neutral on the debate since I have to honestly say I don’t really care either for or about IASW but I DO hate to see people who have worked their entire lives to entertain people get shredded by those same people when they make a choice they dislike. Your response makes me feel like the changes are probably going to be a bad choice and that you’re probably right.

    However I would like to say that I feel more concrete evidence is needed that these changes are going to happen. So far I have rumor and conjecture, some of which has been disproven, and very little solid information of what is actually going to happen. With all due respect, the only changes that have been confirmed by a neutral journalist are the additions of Alice and Peter Pan. That’s not exactly a lot to go by. I’ve heard rumors about moving the rain forest, killing the rain forest (disproved), and a hypothetical America scene (which I personally have no problem with). Until I see some actual evidence I’ll have to withhold my scorn but your thoughts have made me more neutral on the subject then I have been. Well written and well done sir.

    • John Frost says:

      Thanks for your comment on The Disney Blog. While I understand your desire to wait and see more concrete proof of the changes, I think it’s important get out in front of the news so that you can be informed, and, if needed, act before any permanent damage is done. Sometimes that requires relying on sources, some more reliable than others.

      When I get confirmation from multiple reliable sources that’s good enough for me to make a post. Disney is not in the habit of showing ‘in progress’ work as it would spoil the magic, so we do the best with what we have.

      Thanks again for reading The Disney Blog

  8. Tuckenie says:

    Ah, well, like I said you changed my mind from being fine with the changes to leaning more toward disliking them. I’ve never been to DL having lived in central Florida most of my life so I can’t really say I feel the passion for this particular case that you do but I do still feel anger over Journey Into Imagination so I totally understand and wish you all the best in your work. Again, great blog and very well thought out posts on the subject that lack the personal attacks of others. That’s how you really convince people.

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