Before he died Hench wrote quite a bit on the principles of Imagineering in his book Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show. In order to understand, analyze, and critique the recent changes to It's A Small World, I have looked to Hench's wisdom for guidance.
What follows are my interpretations and mine alone. I invite everyone who reads this, all three of you, to respond with your own interpretations of Hench's words, Small World and the changes that have taken place.
The concern over Small World isn't so much over whether or not the changes will look good. It's about how they affect the overall story, theme and message of the attraction. Here, Hench explains the principle of a story place.
When we design any area of a Disney park, we transform a space into a story place. Every element must work together to create an identity that supports the story of that place--structures, entrances and exits, walkways, landscaping, water elements, and modes of transportation. Every element must in its form and color engage the guests' imagination and appeal to their emotions.Okay, let's define this term as it relates to Small World. What is the story of this place? If we showed up to It's a Small World with no knowledge of its history or the interpretations of others, what could we directly infer about the story from the attraction itself?
We board a boat and enter the main show building and the first thing that would become apparent is that we are taking a cruise around the world. Each section showcases a different country's culture, style of dress, customs and that sort of thing.
If we are paying attention to the song that's being played we infer a theme of unity and peace. Though these countries may be different on the outside, they tend to have more in common than not on the inside. Corny stuff, I know. It's an attraction that challenges our preconceived notions of what the world is like, and shows us a vision of how the world could or should be. There are no bombs flying through the air, for example.
Astute individuals may realize that the singing dolls are meant to symbolize the children of the world, and that children are more likely to believe in the naive ideal of world peace before they become cynical adults. If you put two young children from Israel and Palestine in a room together they are not likely to fight, unless they've been brainwashed by adults to hate each other.
That's just my interpretation. Yours may be different. But now that we have defined our story place we can analyze whether or not the Disney characters, the USA scene and Disney melodies interspersed in the soundtrack support that story.
The New Music
What do you think of when you hear, "When You Wish Upon A Star"? I usually think of Pinocchio or the fireworks show. While the song is beautiful, how can its inclusion in Small World be justified if it distracts you from the ride's message and takes your imagination to another place? The same is true for the other Disney melodies now present in the attraction.
If details are to be added to an existing attraction they must support and enhance the attraction's theme and message or else they become needless clutter. The saving grace of adding Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean is that, at the very least, he was technically a pirate (though there are other concerns about the story there).
A detail should only be used if it is essential to the story in some way. There is a big difference between being overwhelmed with detail that really amounts to clutter, and the feeling of perfection that is real storytelling. As designers, we must not make the mistake of thinking that a "big look" with lots of detail is enough.The New Characters
How does the addition of Donald Duck, Stitch and Mulan support Small World's story place? That's what opponents of the changes have been asking since the news was first broken by Disneyland muckraker Al Lutz.
While supporters have been unable to articulate how they add to the attraction, they claim the characters do not detract. An issue similar to the new musical cues presents itself. The characters divert your attention away from the children of the world. Instead of the naive ideals of world peace and unity, your imagination is focused on Donald Duck and his crazy antics or Aladdin and Jasmine and their wondrous magic carpet ride. Those are all good things, but they belong elsewhere.
The characters are a contradiction, a danger John Hench explains.
The minute details that produce the visual experience are really the true art of the Disney themed show, its greatest source of strength. The details corroborate every story point, immersing guests into the story idea, and that if one detail contradicts another, guests will feel let down or even deceived.The additions create within Small World two separate story ideas, that of the children of the world who believe in unity and peace, and the Disney characters themselves. The Disney characters are competently constructed. I'm sure many of us would want one displayed in our homes. But they don't support Small World's story idea, they are supporting another entirely different story idea. The ride's new marketing even encourages guests to keep an eye out for familiar faces, overshadowing the original meaning of the attraction further. Is Small World now a character hunt?
No, Small World's new residents are simply inappropriate details.
This is why he insisted that even details that some designers thought no guest would notice-such as the replicated period doorknobs on Main Street, U.S.A.-were important. Inappropriate details confuse a story's meaning.Small World may not be a period replication of a real life object. But in creating this original attraction, WED has established some rules in the development of its story idea that future Imagineer's must follow. The most basic rule of which is to make sure added details support the attraction's story idea.
The New Scene
The LA Times is reporting that the USA scene now present in Small World was once sketched by Mary Blair with the intention of going into the original attraction. Someone who is more familiar than I with the backroom dealings of Disney in the 1960s will have to verify that one, but one thing is clear, the United States of America was not given its own scene in the original version of It's A Small World. Nor was it added when the attraction was moved to Disneyland after the World's Fair.
It would be difficult to figure out just why the USA scene was not present in the original Small World. Many of the ride's original designers are now dead. By telling the LA Times that tidbit of information, Disney is implying that the USA scene was always meant to be. Maybe it wasn't.
If we go back and look at the rich history of this iconic attraction, I think we can agree that the original intent of It's A Small World was to showcase the cultures of the world to Americans (or to whip up something real quick for Pepsi, who sponsored the ride at the time). Why, then, would we need to "discover" our own culture near the end of the ride?
Events earlier this decade have made "GO USA #1 NEVER FORGET" type jingoism very popular but it has experienced a backlash in recent years. The symbolism of an American scene replacing the rain forest scene has become something of a punchline. As someone who loves his country, I'm sick of hearing about America.
There are many places to see patriotism in action at Disney Parks. Walt Disney World has Liberty Square and the Hall of Presidents. Epcot has The American Experience. Disneyland's Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln will return soon. Main Street itself, with its moving flag procession performed every single day, is a slice of Americana. There is a place for patriotism. Small World is not that place. Here, the USA scene seems to contradict the historical context of the attraction itself.
While the additions to Small World may be aesthetically pleasing to some guests, they have no place in the attraction. Some don't want to make a fuss, I understand.
The most confusing thing to me, however, is why those who speak out against the changes and try to examine Disneyland at a higher level are told to get a life or worse. Disneyland itself would not exist had Walt Disney not sat on a bench at Griffith Park while watching his kids, bored out of his skull, and wondered why going to the park couldn't be so much more.