Image: "It's A Small World" ride at Disneyland
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
Senior Production Designer Leslee Turnbull paints stones on the base of the Cinderella portion of the "It's A Small World" ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
updated 2/5/2009 11:17:54 AM ET 2009-02-05T16:17:54

Move over, children of the globe — it's a Disney world after all.

More than 40 years after the "It's A Small World" ride opened 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 Thursday when the ride reopens: 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 Los Angeles' famous Hollywood Bowl, a quaint farm scene and "Toy Story" characters.

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. Yet some angry fans see an unabashed marketing ploy that trashes the pacifist message at the heart of the "Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed the World" 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?"

Disney hopes to add ‘new magic’
Others are miffed that Disney would inject fantasy worlds into a ride dedicated to cross-cultural understanding. The added figures from a dozen movies include the blue alien Stitch, the mermaid Ariel and characters from the 1992 movie "Aladdin," which angered many Arab-Americans with its portrayal of Middle Eastern culture.

Slideshow: The world of Walt Disney "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 the University of Southern California. "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.

Since then, more than 256 million people have visited the original ride, and the "Small World" song has played 4.3 million times. 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.

Reshuffling the attraction does appeal to many fans, some of whom grew up riding it each year with their parents. 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.

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"Oh, anything Disney does is always exciting," Barbour said. "It's always something fun, and they never do anything halfway."

Not a ‘marketing pitch’
Disney designers who have worked for more than a year to modify the ride insist the concerns of their critics are unfounded. They 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 recently 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.

"It's what Walt always wanted," she said. "He always said the park would always be changing as long as there was imagination in the world."

Yet after initial reports of the proposed changes leaked last year, the son of the ride's original designer, children's illustrator Mary Blair, wrote an open letter to Disney executives blasting the changes as "a gross desecration of the ride's original theme."

"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. "We are not 'young marketing whizzes' trying to make a name for ourselves."

But some longtime Disney watchers disagree — although they acknowledge they have yet to see the carefully guarded changes themselves.

"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."

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