More than 40 years after the “It’s A Small World” ride opened at Disneyland to promote world peace and showcase the cultures of the world, Disney is populating one of its most beloved attractions with its own trademark vision of the planet: Aladdin, Nemo, Ariel and more than two dozen cartoon characters plucked from its movies.
And those aren’t the only changes visitors will find when the ride reopens today.
Disney has woven a few bars from some of its hit soundtracks into the classic “Small World” melody and added a new America section that includes a nod to the Hollywood Bowl, a quaint farm scene and “Toy Story” characters.
Senior Production Designer Leslee Turnbull paints the Cinderella portion of “It’s A Small World” at Disneyland.
Disney says it supplemented the human dolls with make-believe figures to keep the aging ride appealing to younger generations and give it a new twist.
Some angry fans see an unabashed marketing ploy that trashes the pacifist message at the heart of the ride and ruins one of the few rides that remained unchanged since the days of Walt Disney.
“What message are they actually saying about the world?” said Jerry Beck, an animation historian who runs the blog Cartoon Brew. “That you can go anywhere and there will be a Disney theme park?”
The added figures from a dozen movies include the blue alien Stitch, the mermaid Ariel, and characters from the 1992 movie “Aladdin.”
“Disney wants to brand the diversity of the entire world and somehow say that it’s Disney derived,” said Leo Braudy, a cultural historian at USC. “It seems a bit crass to put this brand on something that was meant to be a sort of United Nations for children.”
The “Small World” ride debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York as a benefit to the United Nations Children’s Fund and moved to Disneyland two years later.
When Walt Disney dedicated the ride in 1966, he invited children from around the world to pour water from their homelands into its flume in a gesture of unity.
Replicas have opened at Disney theme parks in Florida, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, and company research shows that a quarter of all Disneyland guests consider the ride a family tradition.
Disney says it hopes adding what it calls “new magic” to the 43-year-old attraction will attract even more riders and create new traditions for young families who don’t identify with “Small World” as strongly as previous generations.
The makeover appeals to many fans, some of whom grew up riding it each year with their parents.
Adding characters, such as Alice and the White Rabbit, have some longtime fans shouting, “Off with their heads.”
Dawn Barbour visited Disneyland from Texas with her children and was disappointed to find the ride closed for renovations but thrilled to hear about the changes.
“Oh, anything Disney does is always exciting,” Barbour said. “It’s always something fun, and they never do anything halfway.”
Disney designers say routine repairs gave them an opportunity to add another dimension to the message of cross-cultural understanding by working in references to Disney movies that are based on foreign fairy tales or set in faraway lands.
Whenever Disney changes a popular ride, they say, the company receives criticism from die-hard fans who are resistant to anything that will alter the Disneyland of their childhood memories.
So-called “Dis-nerds” also got upset when Disney refurbished the classic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction but were mollified once they saw the updated ride.
Designers insist the changes to “Small World” are even more subtle and conform to Walt Disney’s original philosophy and style while keeping the attraction from becoming “like a museum,” said Kim Irvine, director of concept design for Walt Disney Imagineering.
The son of the ride’s original designer, children’s illustrator Mary Blair, wrote an open letter to Disney executives blasting the changes.
“The Disney characters themselves are positive company icons, but they do NOT fit in with the original theme of the ride,” wrote Kevin Blair. “They will do nothing except marginalize the rightful stars of the ride, ‘the children of the world.’ ”
Marty Sklar, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, responded with his own letter, which was quickly posted on dozens of blogs and appeased some fans.
“We are not trying to turn this classic attraction into a marketing pitch for Disney plush toys,” Sklar wrote.
But some longtime Disney watchers disagree.
“Parents … could take the kids on this ride and it wasn’t so much about sales; it was about the images, the graphics, the dolls,” said Al Lutz, a veteran Disney watcher who runs miceage.com. “It was a respite from the overwhelming commercial message that Disney can be sometimes.”