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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* 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.

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

  1. I apologize, John. Usually I’m with you one hundred percent; in fact, the reason I began enjoying The Disney Blog is because you seemed an agreeable fellow. But in this case, I cannot agree with you.

    Here’s the thing: By pursuing this point, all we’re doing is making Disney even more secretive from, and nakedly hostile to, their “superfans.” I scarcely thought it possible, but when Dave Smith pops out of the archives to put the smackdown on someone, you know that the company is becoming galvanized.

    We need to pick our battles – to keep the heat on Disney to drive out the Vacation Club hucksters, pollsters and ODV carts, to get rid of Fastpass and the multiple levels of Annual Pass structure, to make sure that the Park is clean and beautiful and to keep admission and food prices down where families can afford them. This is a battle we can’t win, at least not through these means. If you truly want to send Disney a message, stop giving them money. The only place Disney can hear us is through their coffers.

    For the record, I oppose removing the rainforest — but I am ambivalent to the addition of Disney characters. I will wait and see, and if I don’t like what the Imagineers have wrought, then I’ll make a case. Hard to get bent out of shape over something I haven’t yet seen. Besides, if I wanted to live in a static and unchanging Disneyland, I would stay home with my memories, which only get better with every passing year.

    I apologize for this tastelessly long-winded response. As I said before, I have enjoyed this blog for several years, and will continue to. But I can’t protest something that two men who worked directly with Walt seem to be in favor of — not without seeing it with our own eyes.

    Let’s give the Flower Street mob a chance. The changes, as I understand them, are relatively minor. The minute they replace the Sherman Brothers with Justin Timberlake, we can hit the picket lines … and I’ll join you.

  2. John – I can only come to the conclusion that you keep milking this topic because it adds comments to your normally comment-free blog. Why bother blogging about a company that you so apparently loathe? I’m surprised you didn’t lump Julie Andrews into the whole mess and denounce her like you have Marty Sklar and Dave Smith. And to quote Jason Schultz saying that Walt usually changed virgin territory? Are you kidding me? Jungle Cruise was “plussed” multiple times while Walt was alive; Nature’s Wonderland was added to at least 3 times under Walt; Storybook Land dramatically changed in just the first year; and last but not least, Tomorrowland 1967…talk about a burn & scrape! Need I go on? To call changes that you have no first-hand (meaning you’ve not seen them yourself) knowledge of “goofy” is just irresponsible journalism. You have turned an enjoyable and informative daily read into one that is too cynical to be believed. Buddy, give this one a rest!

    1. John – Thanks for the link and the kind words.

      Dave – I may have been trying to do too much in my post and muddled things in the process. There were really two kinds of change Walt did: doing something new, and plussing. When he did something new it was usually on empty land within the Park; when he “replaced” something, it was usually with a similar theme but dramatically improved (with a few exceptions, like the Mickey Mouse Club Circus becoming the Junior Autopia). Of course Walt plussed things, but not on a small scale. Your examples demonstrate this.

      The part John quoted was mostly about whether “it’s a small world” would have long ago been replaced by something else. Based on other changes by Walt to improve on his creations rather than to replace all but the big failures, I think it would be.

  3. I am getting emails and comments (as above) that tell me I may have gone over the line on this one. That may be true. I will re-evaluate and step back.

    But it should be clear that I, and many many others, feel very passionate about how wrong this is on multiple levels. So we’re using what voice we have to say “this is enough Disney you’ve gone too far.”

    They’ve gone too far in their ‘character invasion’ of the parks; too far in the addition of an America scene and diminishing of the rainforest; and now too far in sending out Marty Sklar and Dave Smith to flame with weak arguments the very people who are most passionate about their products.

    On my part it really is nothing personal. It’s an idealogical fight and reasonable people can agree to disagree on a few issues and remain committed to the over all thrust of the mission. In this case making Disney Magic for centuries to come.

    We may lose this fight on maintaining the original message and vision of “its a small world”, we probably will, but at least we know we tried.

  4. You guys are acting as if The Disney Blog is the only place that this story is being posted. When people such as Pete Docter are speaking out, this is more than just some whining fans.

    If your one to follow the “insiders” then story is one of a lot of internal politics and fighting. One, that I myself find to be usually reliable, even claims that Tony Baxter and Kim Irvine are not involved the way that Marty Sklar states.

    All that is being asked for as an answer to “Why?” Saying it will make the attraction more relevant and “Disneyland will never be complete” is not much of an answer. Dave Smith’s response to Laughing Place just makes this change look like the result of an automated process and not innovation and creativity.

  5. John I wonder if you all have been asking any sources or doing some investigating into the source of these changes. This just doesn’t seem like the kind of change people like Marty Sklar and Dave Smith would support without some sort of major reason or pressure. I mean Marty was one of the original Imagineers to work on the ride! He must have some sort of pressure coming from somewhere to support this. It doesn’t make sense for it to be just a budget issue.

    I mean there’s something really fishy going on here because no way would Disney go into this without knowing the PR nightmare they were walking into and having a better strategy for combating it. They send out Dave Smith without even telling him what all they were doing? There’s something else going on here we don’t know yet and I don’t like the possibilities…

  6. Please don’t stop posting about this. I think Disney’s making a mistake about this one and it’s good to keep a spotlight on the issue.

  7. I think Geoff summed it up nicely. I have trouble getting too worked up over something that I haven’t seen for myself, and though we’ve been burned often by Disney in the past I am willing to give the new management the benefit of the doubt.

    I don’t believe Disney owes the fans any proof of their actions or samples of what they are planning. I for one often feel that leaked information taints the magic of it all. Disney is a company and other than the stock-holders doesn’t need to explain themselves to anyone.

    They’ll do what they’re doing and we’ll either be unhappy or thrilled, or perhaps indifferent, but until then it’s all speculation.

  8. This is a unique phenomenon, to be sure. Replacing the rainforest with an “up with America” scene is tacky, but adding some characters (or, more accurately, Mary Blair-style dolls dressed as characters) isn’t nearly as bad as some changes they’ve made at WDW (the new Tiki Room, the hat at the Studios, most of Epcot). Admittedly, IASW could use a boost in attendance, but I don’t see a handful of new dolls packing ’em in for very long.

    More than anything, this change seems like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Disney fans have been putting up with sloppy, half-hearted and poorly thought-out “improvements” for a long time now, not to mention the overall decline in maintenance and upkeep, the blatant money-grabbing, attractions being shut down with no replacements, and so on.

    Personally, I’m astounded that THIS is the outcry Disney chose to respond publicly to, but I guess it’s the last straw on their part as well. Hopefully they’ll start to realize that these online protests represent more than the opinion of a few hardcore fans and purists and that, rather, the company is on the wrong track and has been for some time.

  9. Stephenie Pashkowsky

    I think the Disney company is grouping us ‘Disney folks’ into the wrong train of thought. Its not that most of us are preservationalists, and want the park to remain pristine to its original version. We want rides to be updated. Kept up. Kept beautiful, interesting, intriguing and fun.

    We dont want an easy way out. There were plenty of characters around when Walt created Its a Small World. But guess what? He didnt put them into the attraction. He created characters out of nothing, and let them be an attraction among themselves.

    Why after SO MANY FAILED attempts, does Disney STILL feel putting characters in a ride is a way to “update it” or “make it more interesting”. We were promised a good update with the Tiki Room and its TERRIBLE and I dont know anyone who disagrees. We were promised an update to Alien Encounter, to make it more kid friendly. I dont know any kids who enjoy sitting through that mess. Thats just citing 2 of these “necessary character updates”

    I agree they will have (another) marketing nightmare on their hands if gut the rainforest.

    On another note its sad they theyve dumbed the public down so much to think that they will only enjoy rides with Disney Characters in them. Disneyland was built on themes, not characters. And themes will continue to drive people places.

    I understand their reasoning. I dont ride Its a Small World. It will get people in there… but only for a short while. And then it will be that ride for kids with the annoying song, and youll have ruined the ‘classicness’ that it once had. Reducing it down to the eye roll I give the tiki room when i walk by it. As an AP and a stockholder, im really dissapointed.

  10. Even though it can be a pain in the butt, I’m sure are companies out there whose executives wished they had as passionate of a following as Disney.

    What a double-edges sword.

  11. Isn’t showing fantasy characters from all over the world promoting world unity? Showing that all children in the world believe in fantasy and share that love with other children is a great way to bring the world together.

    I know that my 6 year old daughter gains new respect for the countries at Epcot when she can sees various characters that are specific to that country. It provides a starting point for discussing that country when she sees Alice in England or Mulan in China. The same thing will work for its a small world.

    I agree with just about everyone that getting rid of the rainforest is wrong on many levels and hope we don’t see that.

  12. Pingback: Disney fires another salvo at ‘complaining’ Small World fans - Travel -

  13. John,
    I, for one, think you were perfectly right in your comments. You’re far from crossing any line; I think that you’ve hit it right on the mark. I’m even more surprised that anyone else would be surprised that Disney fans would take umbrage at a sudden, unnecessary change to one of the park’s signature attractions. It would even be different if this had happened years ago, but as others have pointed out, WDI hasn’t exactly been batting 1.000 with these things lately. And churning out quotes from the Walt-o-matic 3000 isn’t going to assuage those worries one bit.

  14. I just hope the “old” Disney isn’t lost and taken away. I would hate for Walt did, and bring to us, to dissapear.


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