Disney fires another salvo in defense of “it’s a small world” changes

Disney has fired another salvo in defense of the goofy changes coming to Walt Disney’s classic attraction “it’s a small world.” This time the weapon of choice is Disney Archivist Dave Smith.

In an email sent to LaughingPlace.com* Dave Smith defends the changes arguing again that Walt never intended Disneyland to remain stagnant. After rolling out the usual Walt Disney snippets Smith wrote:

Walt Disney was constantly changing his park, just as he said he would. And those changes did not end with Walt’s death over 40 years ago. The Disney Imagineers have continued to follow his dream, frequently adding and changing things in the park to give today’s guests the best possible experience.

When pressed by Laughing Place if adding characters to “it’s a small world” is the right move Smith answered:

we have added characters to previous character-free attractions: witness Pirates of the Caribbean (Jack Sparrow), Tiki Room (Iago, at the Magic Kingdom in FL), Treehouse (Tarzan), Big Thunder Ranch (Little Patch of Heaven), Tom Sawyer Island (Pirates Lair), Main Street Cinema (Disney cartoons), Haunted Mansion (Haunted Mansion Holiday), Submarine Voyage (Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage), El Rio del Tiempo (Gran Fiesta Tour, at Epcot), The Living Seas (starring Nemo and Friends, Epcot). Because of the great number of Audio-Animatronics children in Small World, I cannot imagine that the addition of a few characters like Alice in Wonderland will affect the theme.

So now I’m confused. Is Dave Smith arguing for or against adding characters? The argument those of us against turning yet another attraction into a character-fest use is the proliferation of the idea across attractions where there is at best a 50/50 chance of improving the guest experience. One more attraction with characters is obviously not needed with that long list he provided, especially if we risk it being another “Tiki Room: Under New Management”.

Smith’s comment that he cannot imagine how a few characters will make a difference also makes the anti-character force’s point. In that adding in a character overlay is not imaginative enough. And we’ll just have to disagree on it changing the theme. Fantasy characters are not the same theme as human children and just don’t have the same emotional impact when it comes to a message of peace and world unity. If you can’t see that, then you do indeed have a failure of the imagination. (Which is doubly sad when you’re working for the Walt Disney Company.)

Before I saw this letter from Dave Smith, I was going to write up a link to this excellent post over on the Disneyland Nomenclature blog written by Disney historian Jason Schultz (go read the whole article, it’s quite good) . Jason takes apart the use of Walt Disney being a “change agent” defense by using actual examples of the change Walt himself made to Disneyland.

After showing how Walt’s change was primarily focused on fixing things that were obviously broken (Mickey Mouse Circus) or expanding into unused areas of the park, Jason concludes:

I don’t really know how to describe what kind of change Walt brought. It seems to me that he basically got it right at the Park opening, and we can see this today with the way the Magic Kingdoms around the world have so closely modeled themselves on that first iteration of Disneyland. Walt didn’t bring about wholesale change; when he added something new, it was usually on “virgin” land. … Based on the above examples, it seems likely that “it’s a small world” would still be at the Park today, perhaps radically changed in terms of aesthetics or technology, but preserving the attraction’s basic message.

This is the message I would have expected to hear from Dave Smith and Marty Sklar. That it has to come from an outside authority is sad. Jason, btw, has my vote for Disney Archivist should that position ever open up.

All this brings me to this conclusion. There has to be something else going on here. Some politics behind the scenes is driving this craziness on Disney’s part. Disney has now, in essence, gotten into a flame war with its fans. Instead of engaging the community, they’re just flinging the same tired old arguments and hoping we won’t notice that they’ve been shot down numerous times before.

Here’s a message to Disney management. The proliferation of characters into the message of World Peace is wrong. But it’s not even their worst problem. They’re setting themselves up for a huge PR mess when the attraction re-opens and America has literally devastated the rainforest and left a reduced version of it elsewhere in the attraction. In a nation that is moving quickly to embrace the ‘green’ movement, that switch won’t be lost on anyone and Disney will get bloodied in the media and online. Marty Sklar’s letter denying those changes will come back to haunt Disney them. It’s likely that Dave Smith’s letter won’t help things either.

So what next? Disney now has two choices. They can admit that they were wrong. That the message and original intent of Walt Disney’s classic attraction “it’s a small world” is inviolate and should not be watered down. Alternatively, Disney can attempt to “show” that their vision is the correction. Actually engage the community with facts, images, and examples instead of tired quotes that can be manipulated by both sides. Then this won’t be a flame war, but a rational discussion over the future of Disneyland. I’m not holding my breath.

*the letter was also sent to at least one other outlet including the LA Times.

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