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It’s A Small World – Imagineer Marty Sklar Letter to Disney Fans

Editor’s Note: Disney provided this letter written by Marty Sklar Executive Vice President Walt Disney Imagineering and Imagineer Ambassador as a response to the controversy surrounding the addition of Disney characters to Walt Disney’s classic attraction “it’s a small world.” I’ve included it in its entirety with my thoughts in the comments section.


A local newspaper reporter got it right when she wrote that, after we updated Pirates of the Caribbean last year, “many fans grudgingly acknowledged that… the additions may make the ride more appealing to young park goers.” Now, based purely on rumors that are mostly inaccurate, we are being criticized for touching another one of Walt Disney’s “classics.”

We all agree that “It’s A Small World” is a Disney classic. But the greatest “change agent” who ever walked down Main Street at Disneyland was Walt himself. In fact, the park had not been open 24 hours when Walt began to “plus” Disneyland, and he never stopped. Having started my Disney career at Disneyland one month before the park opened in 1955, I can cite countless examples.

Like all my colleagues at Walt Disney Imagineering, I was pressed into action to help make “It’s A Small World” happen at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. We were all working to complete and open Ford’s “Magic Skyway” and General Electric’s “Carousel of Progress” (I worked on both) as well as “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” for the State of Illinois. But 11 months before the World’s Fair opening, Walt agreed to do “a salute to the children of the world” for UNICEF, and all the Imagineers somehow made it happen.

Mary Blair’s illustrations were, of course, the spark. But this was one of those great Disney “team efforts,” and many Disney legends joined her: Marc Davis; Blaine Gibson; Rolly Crump, Harriet Burns and numerous others. And, of course, Bob and Dick Sherman added that song we can’t get out of our heads. I interfaced with all of them to write and produce a 24-page souvenir book that was sold at the Fair, because Walt wanted to showcase and thank the team for an extraordinary accomplishment.

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).

In fact, just the opposite is true. We want the message of brotherhood and good will among all children around the world to resonate with more people than ever before, especially today’s young people. Our objective is to have everyone who experiences “It’s a Small World” understand (in the words the Shermans’ wrote 44 years ago) that “there is just one moon, and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone.”

To make “It’s A Small World” even more relevant to our guests, Tony Baxter (who created the concepts for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and other Disneyland classics) and I arrived at the same place eight years ago. To accomplish our objective, we decided to seamlessly integrate Disney characters into appropriate thematic scenes in the attraction, and do it completely in the distinctive “Mary Blair style.” We spent many long months exploring ways to accomplish this.

We are not turning this classic attraction into a marketing pitch for Disney plush toys (rumors to the contrary). Between Tony, our chief designer Kim Irvine, and me, we represent 128 years creating Disney park entertainment and fun for literally billions of guests around the world. We are not “young marketing whizzes” trying to make a name for ourselves. We were fortunate to have trained, and worked with, all of Walt’s original Imagineers.

In the Shermans’ song, it’s the oceans that are wide, and the mountains that divide. Our goal was, and always will be, to bring people together, and keep this classic “the happiest cruise that ever sailed around the world” (words I personally wrote for that souvenir guide nearly half a century ago).

Or, as Walt Disney phrased it in his introduction to that guide, “a magic kingdom of all the world’s children.”

Martin A. Sklar
Executive Vice President
Walt Disney Imagineering
Imagineering Ambassador

19 thoughts on “It’s A Small World – Imagineer Marty Sklar Letter to Disney Fans”

  1. 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.

  2. Coronado Shores Beachie


    Marty Sklar’s assurances do provide some hope. However, your responding comments are right on target! You as always express the feelings of thousands of fans.

  3. Marty’s assurances do indeed provide some hope. It is also nice to know that Tony Baxter is working on this. I know that will give no comfort to those who dislike Finding Nemo Sub Voyage and some other things he has been involved with, but I do know this about Tony: He cares about the Disneyland hostory and legacy, and keeping the place fresh for the young-at-heart as well as nostalgic for those who remember Disneyland past. It isn’t just a job for that guy. It is something he grew up with.

    It would be very easy for Disney to just shut down the attraction entirely. Sure, there would be grumbling, but if the options are to spend a lot of money on maintenance and capital improvements, or shut it down, thereby saving that money and the money it takes to operate it (labor, insurance, electricity, water, etc.), there are many companies that would simply shut it down. Let’s not forget how long the Submarine Voyage was closed, or how long America Sang (past tense on purpose) was shut down. I know there are people who do not like the Finding Nemo version of subs, or Innoventions, but the alternative was a dead space. If management is only willing to spend the money to keep Small World in running condition for decades to come if there are some noticeable show changes – that could be the reality that Imagineering is dealing with.

    Remmeber – Walt Disney Imagineering does not own Disneyland. If I recall correctly, WDI management is under the Parks & Resorst management, who report to a CEO and a Board of Directors, who in turn are accountable to investors, most of whom (by the percentages of ownership) are not at all bothered by the kind of tinkering that drives some fans up a wall.

    I can’t say that I’m happy about what appears to be the changes, based on what Marty said and didn’t say compared to the online rumors and the news media reports. I can’t say – because I don’t know exactly how this is going to turn out. Heck, when I first heard about the idea of the Broadway version of The Lion King, I thought it was going to be horrible (puppets… with the puppeteers plainly visible? Yuck!!!) but I was WRONG. The show, of course, is great and has done VERY well.

    So, I guess I’ll have to wait and see on this. Maybe it will be fine, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be great. My knee-jerk reaction was negative, but that’s how I (and most people) react to change. How many times have you reacted negatively when you heard about a change coming in your life, and then it turned out to be a really great thing?

  4. Also in the song’s lyrics is “it’s a world of fears.” We fear they might “plus” this attraction so much it will be ruined.

    Marty Sklar apparently doesn’t even know that “it’s a small world” is supposed to be written in all lowercase letters, and we’re supposed to trust him and the Imagineers in their tinkering with the classic attraction?

    Look what they did with Walt’s Enchanted Tiki Room “under new management” at WDW’s Magic Kingdom… and remember Disneyland’s “Light Magic” (infamously known as “Light Tragic”).

    Where does John Lasseter stand on these changes?

  5. Sure, maybe Disney fans have been “burned” by not getting what the publicity in the past has promised, but let’s not forget how many times being burned was a result of faulty rumor reporting. People, remember, what Al Lutz and other people dish out to you is exactly what they say…RUMOR. Rumor=maybe true, maybe not true. Was it wrong to start a “save the rainforest” campaign? No…it’s always good to let Disneyland know what is important to you. Was it wrong to begin the lynch-mob mentality and start villifying Disneyland as whole? Heck yes. Walt himself, as Marty pointed out, was a huge agent for change, and even some of his changes failed miserably (which many of us seem to forget). Always let your opinions be known, but put down the torches and rocks.

    1. Thank you Daveland,
      I like the new Pirates. I love Mansion in its “Nightmare” trimmings, it livens up too familiar settings very nicely. Change is not a bad thing, and considering the achievement to date, their chance of success with it is greater than the chance of disappointment…
      There are some that I like better than others… but it is all entertainment, not open heart surgery.
      There is still no park that compares with the incredible creation that it is, I’m perpetually amazed… and appreciative.

  6. This letter is a terrific acknowledgment that the fans opinions are worthwhile. It is wonderful that Marty has debunked the most heinous of the rumors. While I really don’t believe that the attraction needs characters added, but I can imagine that many people will once again flock to check it out. I know it makes me want to check it out. If they really are subtle, just costumes put over Small World dolls it shouldn’t be offensive. And Marty is right, Walt would have made so many more changes to everything. Walt loved change.

    I do believe that Marty and co. are not trying to make new merchandise for the attractions. But you can bet that the merchandise department will be doing it. And honestly, if we get some NICE Small World merchandise out of this, great. We will just have to wait and see if this is subtle or a hammer to the head.

  7. Mr. Sklar,
    Thank you for your impassioned connection with the history of Disney Theme Park rides. You have lived a life many of us envy. But I am compelled to say that your defense for the redesign of “It’s A Small World” is unconvincing.
    The children of the world honored by the original concept for UNICEF are real. Every beautiful doll face and cultural portrait represents a community of real people. The have lives, history, pain, suffering, joy and hope. As you and the others designed the ride, you help us each time we float through their world to concentrate on the latter two qualities of human existence. Their traditions, movements, costumes, settings, they were researched in real places with real people and we recognize that by the boldness and simplicity of your presentation. It’s brilliant. But here I must gripe over the planned additions.
    As much as I cherish the Disney characters, they are, in the end, fictitious. They are not real. We can imagine a history, an illusion of life, a story of emotion, but it is still imagined, an illusion, a merely vicarious experience. The reason the addition of Jack Sparrow (actually I liked the Davy Jones addition much more) worked is because you put a storied pirate into a pirate story. If Mickey Mouse has to be added to our beloved Small World, I would be more convinced to see his character appear on a bright new shirt sported by one of the children in Africa; I’ve seen that in the real world and have been delighted by it. To see Mickey standing tall next to the same child in chitangi cloth is acceptable, even laughter inducing, in a parade through Harambi for example, but it is jarring and disturbing in almost any other setting. Harmabi, parades and stage shows are not real; Africa is and should remain so even in its amusing stylized form for the ride.
    Another analogy: I enjoy the mixed up mash ups produced for the Disney Channel when, for example, Lilo deep sea dives to rescue Kim Possible so she can continue saving the world. It works, however, because it is wonderfully purposefully bizarre. But in all of its imaginative presentation there is nothing bizarre about It’s a Small World – in concept or design. Nor do I believe there should be. If Disney characters must be added, they should all be gathered into thier own little country, the international land of Disney displayed in one room. The guest would round the corner coming out of the now saved rainforest and smile at the Wonderful World of Disney backdropped by a castle with Paris’ Earle-esque square trees, highlighting a Tokyo’s Nautilus, California’s night scape, Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life, and populated with some of the wonderful creations from the fertile minds of Disney artists through the decades. Make them all and change them every year. It doesn’t matter, they can be as bizarre as you wish. That’s how we like them . . . in their world.

    In conclusion (and for something totally different), If Universal can have Harry-Potter-ville (and they can have it), couldn’t Disney create Narnia? Just a thought.

    Rev. Woodrow Pace

  8. Btw, I’m hearing from someone who has been through the current in progress version of “it’s a small world” that they are adding an ‘America’ section. So much for us being able to trust Mr. Sklar.

  9. It’s nice that the fan frenzy has driven Marty Sklar to comment, but I truly don’t understand how adding characters and a Rah Rah America segment does anything to make the ride more “relevant”.

  10. It’s always highly speculative to talk about “what Walt would have done”, but for what it’s worth, I think if things had continued along the trajectory Walt was setting when he passed away, “it’s a small world” would have long ago been reincarnated, perhaps as par of a multinational-themed addition (such as World Showcase).

    It was convenient to bring the attraction to Disneyland as part of the shrewd deal Walt Disney had worked out with Disney’s participation in the 1964 World’s Fair, but I highly doubt it would have stayed “untouched” all of these years.

    Again, I’m not saying I’m in favor of the changes. I’m just saying I’m willing to give WDI the benefit of the doubt.

    Visiting Disneyland is a voluntarily expenditure of time and money. Anyone who can no longer enjoy the place for whatever reason, including being upset about changing what they consider to be the very essence of classic attractions, is free to stop plunking down their hard earned money and devoting their limited time to visit. I myself miss so much about “EPCOT Center”, including the old Journey Into Imagination, World of Motion, Horizons, and being able to have a normal lunch at Akershus. I would probably be visiting the place more often if those things were still around – though I do enjoy Test Track and Mission: Space.

    Hopefully, when “it’s a small world” reopens, most of us will be happy with what has been done.

    One thing is for sure already. Disney had gotten an awful lot of free publicity from this – including news reports that depict one of its theme park attractions as akin to an international historic monument, at least in the hearts of many people.

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  12. The attraction has already been “plussed” over the years beyond normal maintenance. The sound system and soundtrack were improved and brought up to current technology some years ago. Then there was the “plussing” in creating a Christmastime overlay to it.

    I hope when the boats are changed they still have the real wood parts of them as the originals did and not just have them be all fiberglass (with metal handrails) like the boats are at WDW’s version of the attraction.

    The original boats I first rode at the NY World’s Fair and later at Disneyland were so classy, like mini-yachts!

    One “plus” I’d love to see is to have theming on both sides of the boat canal, unlike how there were empty spots originally, and to have the water seem to go on beyond the canal as the Imagineers did at the WDW version of the attraction.

  13. Mr Skylar,
    Many people can speculate about what Walt Disney did or what Walt Disney would want. Many Disney purist want things to stay the same, and not change. The subtle changes made to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride leave the ride virtually the same as it was before. Adding Captain Jack and the Davey Jones effect,just added a more updated and recognizable character. It is nice to know that someone who actually knew what Mr Disney’s thoughts, plans, and his desires where, and is still in the loop when it comes to making “update” decisions. I don’t think that adding more recognizable characters to the “original” rides is wrong, as long as they are done in the same taste as the Pirates additions, that they seamlessly fit in. Now if you could update the C of Progress and actually bring that last scene up to date!

  14. It’s interesting to see, particularly in the light of the recent Los Angeles Times article about this controversy, that Disney is trotting out Marty Sklar to once again claim that Walt would have wanted it this way.

    That’s just not so.

    “Disneyland is YOUR land,” Walt said. So, why won’t Disney listen to its most ardent fans?

    The addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean at least added a pirate — not Goofy in a pirate costume or Donald with an eye patch. If you have no idea who Capt. Jack or Johnny Depp is (and in 20 years, most people won’t), the concept still works.

    But this new idea really does desecrate the basic concept of “It’s a Small World.” If Disneyland Guests don’t understand or appreciate the meaning behind the attraction, that’s DISNEY’S fault, not theirs. With children increasingly spoiled and coddled by their parents, the message behind “It’s a Small World” is a more potent one than ever before: Children matter. Wherever you go, whatever their color, whatever their culture, children are the same, they are the unifying force in the world.

    That’s a sentiment that was important enough that when the United States Postal Service honored Walt Disney with a stamp, the image chosen wasn’t Walt with Mickey Mouse, it was Walt with the children of “It’s a Small World.”

    I hold out little hope that they will change their minds, but I hope the Imagineers and Disney managers will take seriously the criticism they are receiving from this wrong-headed decision and change their minds. “It’s a Small World” is a classic; it is at least as relevant, as potent, as popular and as perfect as it was 44 years ago. It has always been one of the most popular rides at Disneyland.

    As Dear Abby used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    “It’s a Small World” ain’t broke. But, sadly, I think it’s about to be.

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  16. The problem with comparing the iasw changes to the POTC additions is that one of these things is not just a ride, but a statement. Playing “Spot Stitch” in a tribute to world peace does nothing but trivialize it. I cannot imagine anything more “relevant” to the world of today than the ideals put forth in iasw.

    Please do not trot out the “Walt loved change” adage. We’re all smart enough to know he only wanted to change things for the better.

  17. Mr. Sklar’s letter was a thoughtful, welcome gesture from a man who was present when “it’s a small world” came to life. He does not, however, address the key issue. The insertion of Disney characters will subvert the integrity and theme of the attraction.

    The ISAM dolls are significantly equal in their charming, impersonal uniformity, distinguished only by facial ethnicity. They are child-like representations of all the world’s real living people.

    Disney characters, however, are diametrically opposite: They are fantasy characters with colorful characteristics, unique appearances, and individualistic back-stories. “Stitch,” as an example, is described on Wikipedia as an extraterrestrial alien condemned to a penal colony. Simba is a lion who inadvertently kills his uncle in self-defense. Snow White is a poisoned princess.

    The insertion of these intensely larger-than-life characters simply because their plots place them in a particular country would violently invalidate IASM’s vision of a common humanity in search of harmony. The ISAM dolls would be reduced to, well, pretty dolls, serving as background for the more dramatically dynamic Disney-character dolls.

    However long the Imagineers have pondered this unfortunate change, it can be hoped that clear-sighted leaders and artists together will find ways to intensify rather than destroy the powerful theme behind this beautiful creation which would convert it into an amorphous “celebration of children.”

    Creating alternate melodic strains in harmony with the current theme song (rather than intruding a mix of Disney songs, as has been rumored) would be a good start.

    Using new technologies to intensify rather than destroy the original theme of universal world peace (and integrating the individual nationalities in the finale) would be good next steps.

    As for merchandising, a stunning new line of ISAM-themed dolls and collectibles would make more sense than another recycling of the Disney characters.

    Fingers crossed for a small and fragile world worth saving.

  18. The small world has been redesigned before. After it left the 1964 fair it was mutilated to accommodate larger crowds in California. The entire progression of the music track was sacrificed for the sake of putting more people through it faster. The original built to a series of crescendos and transitioned smoothly from one country to the next culminating with a assembling of all the characters at the end. I saw the original in ’64 and then the installation in WDW in late 70’s and the installation in California in 1989. I had lunch with Marc Davis after seeing the ride in ’89 and he confirmed the redesign for the parks. The original was like a Disney Silly Symphony whereas the version for the parks became an overblown store window with no dramatic curve. Very sad indeed.

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