I had heard it was to rain on this day — one I had marked in my calendar for weeks — where the newly revamped it’s a small world would come out of its slumber to enchant the world once again with its sparkling whimsy. I did not care about the rain, nor any obstacles that would be tossed at me. Nothing, but nothing, would deter me from my mission: to have a great time at one of my favorite attractions in the park.
Sure enough, it was raining like mad. Californians, at least the ones in the Southern region, have a tendency to act like Armageddon is upon us when even the slightest drop falls from the sky — they lose their ability to think rationally, and, more specifically, seem to forget how to properly operate a motor vehicle. A drive that would normally take me 45 minutes from Downtown Los Angeles was easily doubled due to this irrational fear of water. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m surrounded by distant cousins of the Wicked Witch of the West — nothing else could explain their sharp turn in their behavior whenever presented with anything damp.
As it turns out, this worked to my advantage. When I arrived at the park, it was as desolate as can be. I saw a great many people running for cover, or fleeing the park altogether. This gave me a clear shot to go anyplace I chose to go. But, of course, there was only one destination truly on my mind. I went there straight away.
This day was a special preview event for season pass holders. it’s a small world would officially open on Friday, but those of us who have passes are often afforded certain perks, this being one of them. I thought there would be a bit of a line, even though the attraction had officially been open for preview since 8:00am. Turns out there wasn’t much of a line at all, and with the rain, there wasn’t much of a general turnout, either, and what was to be an exclusive for folks like me ended up not being so. They had two lines going: one for general guests, and one for pass holders. Folks like me ended up getting what amounted to a Fast Pass, which spend things up nicely. I couldn’t complain.
Why did this attraction close to begin with? Well, it was getting old and rickety. Even die-hards like me knew it needed a bit of a facelift, here and there. Certain portions were creeking, mouths were splitting on animatronic children an so forth — it just needed a bit of love to come back to its old luster. Also, the whole thing needed to be retrofitted for the un-anticipated size increase of the average American. In the 1960s, when this ride was originally designed, people just weren’t that big. Now, with obesity being such a major issue here in this country, a lot of the old technology can’t accommodate the stress placed upon it.
I walked on up to the ride, and the first thing I looked at were the boats. They were different, alright, made of the kind of hard plastic that you would see at a children’s play yard. Actually, I thought they looked fine, and they did an excellent job maintaining that same old look. Good job on that, Disney!
I had high expectations going in. A lot of talk had been bandied about over what was going to take place inside. I always worried that they would try to desecrate the beauty of Mary Blair’s greatest achievement by removing the very elements that made it so great. Certainly, they had made so-called improvements over the years that had done nothing to display any respect for her style and legacy — colors were always cheap and unimaginative, and the styles were from another play book, where people did not understand Blair’s unadulterated charm and purity. But I had heard on good authority that Disney was determined to bring any of the ill-guided additions out altogether, and replace them with ones that suited the core material.
I heard rumors that a great many Disney characters were to be added within — a shocking notion, since that would ruin much of the original intent of the ride. This, after all, was to represent the children of the world, and not little jungle animals who bellowed “Hakuna Matata.” I was told they made additions like this in their Japanese theme park, ushering in high praise. Since that was pretty much confirmed to me by everybody and their mother, I was psychologically prepared for the additions. I just prayed that they would do things right.
When I glanced down into the tunnel, my heart sank. There, creeping slowly towards me, were poor mid-1980s versions of it’s a small world greeting me at the gate. These were the same hokey things that had been there before… and they were not done well at all. The design and color style reminded me of those discount coloring books one sees at the 99-cent stores. Terrible. Not only that, they were cheaply made — almost like out of foam core and balsa wood. Here it was preview day, one day away from the official opening of the attraction, and these pieces were actually starting to fall apart. I mean SERIOUSLY… they were falling apart. I was stunned. Then I saw that sea serpent, which I was assured would be removed. I thought I was walking into the very pits of my worst quality control nightmares.
As I went past that bone-chilling opening portion, I was happy to see materials that were familiar and done with class. Of course, there had been changes, here and there, but the overall flavor remained. Alice in Wonderland and the White Rabbit were the first big additions I saw. In the new concept, the standard it’s a small world child figurine is decked out like a Disney character, and these characters are sprinkled throughout. Non-human characters are done in a style more in accordance to what Mary Blair’s style dictates. And, in some cases, I have to admit I did not mind what they did so much. If change was going to happen, at least they put forth some effort to get it right.
A new soundtrack was also recorded to meld in the themes that match the Disney characters. So, when you see Cinderella, you’ll get a taste of her tune. Peter Pan, Alice — everybody got the same treatment. It did not detract too much for the main Sherman Brothers theme, but I will admit it was different.
I didn’t think all the additions were good ones. Pinocchio meshed in alright in his modified Vegas-meets-Venice show window. I noticed the colors were just too darn safe — they lacked the spark and the daring that made Blair’s originals so darn extraordinary. This was starting to become a theme in all of the additions: no one really could grasp that magical color style. At some points, it didn’t even look like they tried. For somebody who’s an artist, you can sense where there is passion and life just by giving something a quick glance. Some of this didn’t feel passionate — it felt like contract work.
Disney has material that runs the entire gamut, and they made sure to throw in as many characters in as many locals as they possibly could. Case in point: José Carioca, Panchito Pistoles and Donald Duck — from 1944′s The Three Caballeros — were placed in the Latin American section. Lilo and Stitch were now surfing in Hawaii. Mushu, the impish dragon from Mulan, was represented by a Chinese kite. Some additions were odd, but I have to admit that many of them blended in without being too distracting. In some cases, it looked like they tried really hard to integrate the characters. In others — like with Flounder, and the fish from Finding Nemo — it looks like they just slapped something in there because they had to. But, I have to say, overall, it wasn’t too bad.
Then I went into the new Southwest addition… and I wanted to die.
Folks, I cannot tell you how cheap, inappropriate, listless and flat-out horrible the new Southwest addition is. It does not fit it’s a small world in any way, shape or form. This was like a low-budget tee shirt display used at Target. It’s almost as if you are removed from the ride for a few moments just so they can plug their Toy Story franchise. There is nothing redeeming about it. Colors are more literal than imaginative. My heart was breaking as I went through this part. It simply does not need to be there. I mean, why do we need a Xanadu-inspired rainbow dancing underneath spotlights leading us to Hollywood?! Don’t we deserve better than this?
After that slap in the face, where the Shemp noise was buzzing around in my brain on a constant loop, I was pleased to end with something more familiar. The big finale is perfectly fine… I just wish its lead-in was a proper one.
The exiting signs were just as garish as the ones at the start. No understanding whatsoever about what made this all so great. But, by this point, I was already too tired to fight it. In almost a mocking sense of defiance, one of the postcards read, “Weather’s Nice,” just as I was about to be dumped into the pouring rain. I laughed, yet wanted to cry.
I left the attraction somewhat in a tizzy. What did I see? Was it really any good? What’s left of my fond childhood memories? Does anybody know how to design anymore? Is there a line over at the Matterhorn? Where should I eat? Will there be traffic going home?
I decided to mill about for a while to let my thoughts settle. I had a meal, went on a few rides, and laughed, privately, at all the people racing around like boric acid was being sprinkled from the sky. “It’s only water,” I thought to myself. “It’s only water.”
Fortunately for me, I am at my most calm during the rain. And since the park was so empty, I had no one to get angry at. In fact, I was flat-out happy. I could walk where I wanted, ride whatever I chose. The world was my oyster. And with this sense of well-being firmly in place, I decided to ride on it’s a small world three more times, to see how my brain would assimilate everything now that the initial shock had worn of.
How did I feel at the end? Well, I guess change is going to happen no matter what you do. You either like it or you don’t, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later. The children really reacted positively to the new characters, and there was just enough of the old stuff to make me happy. I guess with all the negatives involved, I can still live with it.
On my final ride, I had a boat all to myself (the park was about to close), and I just gave in to the warmth and happiness that still emanated from what I had known and loved for several decades. So I guess you can say I had the good time I wanted all along.