“it’s (still) a small world” – As Catchy and Relevant As Ever 50 Years Later

It’s pretty astounding when you consider that what is undoubtedly the most hastily put together Disney attraction in history has endured for 50 years.

“it’s a small world” – which originally opened as an exhibit for Pepsi-Cola at the New York World’s Fair on April 22, 1964 – was thrown together at the last minute while WED Enterprises was hard at work building three other exhibits – Illinois state’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Ford’s Magic Skyway, and General Electric’s Progressland (now known as the “Carousel of Progress”).

After the fair, “it’s a small world” (with the exception of Rolly Crump’s whimsical Tower of the Four Winds) would later find a permanent home at Disneyland with a gorgeous new white-and-gold-leaf facade, and today it stands as a masterpiece of showmanship, a beautiful work of art, and as the attraction poster proudly announces, it is “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.”

But how has it lasted this long? If we boil it down to its basic elements, “small world” is just a series of dolls dressed in costume, placed among painted flats inside a large show building. Before examining more closely, we might say that description also fits Superstar Limo, the infamous dark ride that opened at California Adventure in 2001 only to close permanently in less than a year. Why did Superstar Limo fail so hard, whereas “small world” is still going strong and has had newer versions introduced in every single Disney “Magic Kingdom”-style park across the globe?

Well, for one, there is the song. And oh, what a song it is. Rather than playing each country’s national anthem, which would’ve been a cacophony of sound, the Sherman Brothers wrote one song that could be easily sung in so many languages it would later become one of the most widely played songs ever written. They originally played it as a ballad – only later was it sped up to the upbeat version we’re familiar with.

Yes, the song is catchy – the verse melody and chorus melody intertwine so perfectly it can get lodged into your head for weeks. Many people say they hate the song for this reason (maybe you do too!) however the same criticism might be said for just about any popular song currently playing on the radio, only “small world” has a much more positive message (more on that in a minute). Not only does the song play at all 5 of Disney’s theme park locations – it also plays on radio, TV, film, video games, apps, even ice cream trucks. Indeed, the song’s “annoying” qualities, along with the many languages, may have helped it become as widely known as it is today.

Another reason “small world” has endured is because it is beautiful – a work of art you can float right through. I consider it to be Mary Blair’s greatest artistic achievement (in addition to the work of many talented people including Marc and Alice Davis, Rolly Crump and others), and it still shines brightly today, in spite of several dozen irrelevant Disney characters which were added in 2009 (along with a self-indulgent “Up with America!” room with embarrassing Woody and Jessie toy figures). I wish I could convert some “small world” haters if I could only show them what a brilliant artistic statement the attraction is. It is peaceful and comforting, yet surrounds you with patterns and color and visual excitement as your boat floats smoothly past scenes that represent different countries and regions of the world.

“Small world” is a favorite among children, of course, but I always felt it is an attraction adults can enjoy as well, with or without kids. It just takes a certain level of maturity and being in touch with your inner child to rise above the people on the “it’s so annoying” bandwagon. I can’t make people see what is right in front of them. I’m sure many misunderstood artists feel the same way.

A third reason I think the attraction continues to succeed is its universally positive message. Conceived in the mid-60s in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the song’s message of equality and world brotherhood might be perceived today as dated and obvious. However, I think the message is as relevant today as it has ever been. It can’t hurt to remind ourselves that we share the world with 7 billion people and we should try to foster understanding by seeing things from a different point of view. We should try to have compassion for people of all walks of life, not just the people most like ourselves.

This world understanding has improved somewhat in recent years by the Internet and the widespread adoption of social media. (I work in social media, so all my posts inevitably discuss social media at some point.) Our world is more connected today than it was even 10 years ago, thanks to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which can help us create a better understanding of the goings-on in world cultures besides our own.

It’s a small, small world, and with technology, we can make it even smaller. In fact, Richard Sherman is doing a Google+ Hangout later today – such a thing would not have even been possible until very recently. With the Internet we can become better informed about other people of the world and hopefully come to realize that we are more the same than we are different.

Cheers to you, “it’s a small world,” and here’s to 50 more years of laughter, tears, hopes, and fears.

What are your “small world” memories? Share them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading! – Matt @DLthings



The “Happiest Place” Myth – Why Disneyland Will Not Make You Happy (And What Will Instead)

“The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge.” – Walt Disney

Friends, fanatics, foamers. We’ve all been had. Remove the rose-colored glasses and brush off the pixie dust, because it’s time to face the truth:

Disneyland will not make you happy. You can be happy at a Disney theme park, or any theme park, or anywhere of course, but the place itself won’t make you happy.

Almost from the very beginning, Disneyland has sold itself as a place so special you can’t possibly enter its gates without some of that magic rubbing off and putting a smile on your face. Starting sometime in the 1960s, its most well known slogan is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” More recent taglines for various marketing purposes include “Just Got Happier” and “Keeps Getting Happier.” Of course everyone wants to be happier. In a country that entitles you to “the pursuit of happiness”, what could be more American than a theme park that promises to deliver that very elusive but highly-sought-after state of being?

But how much do you or anyone else buy into the “Happiest Place” gimmick? The notion that simply visiting a place, no matter how wonderful, can make you happier is very appealing to the emotions but doesn’t make much sense. After all, if this were true, the park’s most frequent guests – Annual Passholders – would be the happiest group of people on Earth! (And chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ll agree that isn’t exactly the case.)

As an AP holder myself, I can tell you my personal happiness has not noticeably increased or decreased compared to the years when I didn’t have it.

If it were true that everyone who has entered the gates of Disneyland “Just Got Happier,” then why on any given day are there so many bawling children, flustered parents, and downright miserable guests?

Mind you, crowd levels and weather do make a difference – it’s hard to have a good time when the park is filled to capacity and it’s 100 degrees and humid. That can test the willpower of even the most patient, good-natured guest. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the weather is perfect and you get the full VIP treatment – you have the park completely to yourself, you have overly cheerful Cast Members attending to your every want and need, you get instant access to as many attractions as you want. It might be fun for a while, but would it make you happy? Look at most celebrities who receive that treatment every day, everywhere  – are they happy?

Here’s my take on the “Happiest Place” tagline. It’s a hyperbole, an exaggeration – descriptive but also intentionally vague. It can’t be proven or disproven. What if you think that your hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, is happier than Disneyland? It doesn’t matter, because happiness cannot be easily defined, and it means something a little different to each individual. Happiness is not easily measurable, either – you can’t get a refund at the end of the day after realizing you did not become happier after visiting the park (but you can certainly join the line at City Hall and try anyway).

As consumers, we want truth in advertising, but we also allow (and even enjoy) a little bit of exaggeration – just a smidge. As long as the exaggeration doesn’t go too far, we buy into it. We buy into the Barnum & Bailey Circus when they claim to be “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We buy into BMWs being “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” We buy into the idea that Red Bull “Gives You Wings.” And as a result, we buy circus tickets, German luxury cars and energy drinks.

Same logic applies when we buy into the “Happiest Place” imagery and book that lavish Disney vacation.

You’ve seen the ads. Families celebrating birthdays/reunions/graduations/etc. and dining without a care. Children staring wide-eyed up at a sky on fire above a fairytale castle. Insanely cheerful guests (actually paid actors) clapping along to a parade and skipping down the sidewalk with Goofy. It’s selling happiness. Pretty intoxicating, isn’t it? Even though most families are dysfunctional and the members probably hate each other’s guts, mommies and daddies see the ads and think wishfully, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could have a great time together for once?”

This is not a criticism of Disney’s marketing. On the contrary, to market Disney Parks in this way – in effect, “serving up happiness every day” – is a work of genius. From a business perspective, if the marketing gets guests of all ages through the turnstiles and into hotel rooms and they buy food and merchandise and they leave somewhat satisfied and perhaps even want to return again, then the campaign is a success. We must remind ourselves that The Mouse is a business, not a charity giving away happiness for free.

By the way.. I think it has almost reached a point where bringing your kids to a Disney Park has become a moral imperative and to not do so would somehow make you a bad parent. This is unfair, especially as ticket prices continue to “price out” an ever-larger segment of the general population. You can do a fine job raising healthy, happy kids without blinding them with pixie dust. (In this blogger’s opinion, most kids under the age of 4 or 5 would probably have more fun at a community pool or a local park – and kids must be at least age 7 or 8 to really appreciate being at a Disney theme park.)

If any of Disney’s marketing slogans were taken at face value, they’d raise our level of expectations so astronomically high that the reality can’t possibly live up to the fantasy. Let’s examine another marketing slogan: “Where Dreams Come True.” Perfect. So not only will you be in the happiest place on the entire planet – now, all your heart’s desires will be granted as well. The capacity for humans to want more, to wish for more, is unlimited. On such a tall order, it’s almost hard to imagine not leaving disappointed. (It also puts unreasonable expectations on the limits that Cast Members can go to make your stay a “magical” one.)

I also want to point out that “happiness” and “fun” are often used interchangeably, but they are NOT the same thing. Disneyland and other theme parks are “fun” – they provide amusement, a diversion, a brief escape from life’s problems. But “fun” is fleeting. After the party comes the hangover. In fact, studies have shown that most people coming back from vacation return to being just as miserable as before they left!

Our relentless pursuit of fun is driven by the assumption that more fun = happiness, but that equation is flawed. How many of us have attended parties that weren’t even that much fun – let alone made us happier – but we do it because we associate parties with fun and fun must lead to happiness, right? How many of us actually become unhappier during holidays like Christmas and New Year’s because there’s the expectation that we’ll be happy attending all the compulsory activities – and we’ll feel like we’re missing out if we don’t? Will visiting a Disney Park for 24 hours straight and riding the Mad Tea Party 960 times in a row make you 959 times happier than riding it once?

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t visit Disneyland. Like all forms of entertainment, when used in moderation, theme parks can help us maintain happiness by helping us relax, laugh a little, and take attention away from our problems. But a theme park can’t create happiness. And like any source of amusement, theme parks can be abused, if it gets in the way of your personal life, family and other things that do provide long-lasting happiness.

So what DOES make you happier? I don’t claim to be an expert on happiness, but I know it when I see it – or more precisely, I know it when I feel it. Happiness can be faked, of course, and it happens all the time (if you’ve ever worked in customer service, or as a front-line Cast Member, then you know what I’m talking about). In fact you probably think your friends are happier than you – when you see them check in to a Disney Park on social media, for example – when in fact they aren’t. Facebook in particular, where people focus only on the best parts of their lives and neglect to mention the not-so-good, is a big culprit in making you believe this. People who lived 100 years ago didn’t smile in photographs very often, and they’d probably wonder what the heck is wrong with us when we put on a happy face for the camera just because we want to appear happy to others, regardless of whether we actually are.

In my personal life, I have found great happiness in spending quality time with my family, earning a college education, building a career doing what I enjoy, learning to play a musical instrument, reading a good book, etc. None of those things sound especially “fun,” and they require hard work and diligence, but they do contribute greatly to overall happiness in my life.

I’ll leave you with this: It’s OK to have fun once in a while, but don’t equate fun with happiness because they aren’t the same. Fun is temporary; happiness is ongoing. Devote time first to meaningful pursuits that build a happy life, and then scatter in the remainder on amusements like theme parks which are “just for fun.” (Although I will admit “The Funnest Place on Earth” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

What makes you happy? Add your thoughts to the comment section below!

Thanks for reading! 🙂 -Matt @DLthings

Review: “It’s Kind of a Cute Story” is a Must-Read for Disney Fans

It’s kind of a wonderful book.

In fact, it’s probably the best Disney book I’ve ever read.

What makes “It’s Kind of a Cute Story” so great isn’t just because it’s about a legendary Imagineer whose work includes some of the most beloved Disneyland attractions ever built – The Haunted Mansion, ‘it’s a small world,’ The Enchanted Tiki Room. It’s because it’s told by Rolly Crump himself – he’s hilarious, oddball, and filled to the brim with cute little stories. It’s as if Rolly is sitting across from you in a comfy chair with a glass of wine, recounting everything from the posters he made advertising marijuana (yep) to his peculiar fascination with mobiles to the mischievous pranks Disney animators played on each other. I literally laughed out loud several times while reading this book.

Did you know that Rolly designed the fanciful Tower of the Four Winds? Did you know he hated it and didn’t want it to come back to Disneyland after the New York World’s Fair? Instead it was cut up and thrown into the ocean (!). Rolly is forthright with his opinions and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. And I love that.

For me, the book is most interesting when it reveals some of the creative differences between artists and the push-and-shove of egos within WED, Walt’s small team of designers for Disneyland. For example, Roger Broggie apparently didn’t like Rolly and Yale Gracey very much and he refused to help them build effects for the Haunted Mansion. When Rolly designed some portraits for the “stretch room” of the Haunted Mansion, Marc Davis came to look at them and said they were no good and that he would redo them. And there was quite a rift between Rolly and Dick Irvine – they didn’t see eye to eye on anything! It’s fascinating to see the passion these artists had and the lengths they went to defend their designs and ideas.

The book explores Rolly’s incredibly colorful life – growing up, becoming a Disney animator, and working on many memorable theme park projects, including: the delightfully kooky Museum of the Weird, the Tomorrowland redesign of 1967 (including the Tomorrowland Terrace stage and the wonderful flower beds at the entrance to the land), his time as Supervising Art Director of Disneyland (where he saw to everything from the chain links in the queues, to trees which are still in the park today, to the lighting in many park areas including ‘small world’ and Tomorrowland, to theming the popcorn carts and trash cans to their respective lands), some dark rides for Walt Disney World (including the greatly missed Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), ideas for EPCOT (including a master plan with a very different World Showcase and design for the Wonders of Life and The Land pavilion – which John Hench pretty much all hated), Knott’s Bear-y Tales, and more.

There are lesser-known projects here too. I had no idea that Rolly designed what basically amounts to an alternate version of the Enchanted Tiki Room for the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, complete with animatronic birds. Nor did I know he helped design an Omnimover-type ride that took riders to the bottom of the ocean for a project called Ocean Center.

The book is filled with great photos and examples of Rolly’s work in color and black & white. Unfortunately in my copy there is a small glitch with the image of ‘small world’ on page 81. But other than that, the book is a joy to look at as well as to read.

What I most enjoyed from this book is Rolly’s working relationship with Walt and how things got done. There was no guest research or test marketing. If Walt thought something was a good idea, he just went ahead and did it. “Well, build the goddamn thing then!” he says to Rolly, regarding the ‘small world’ facade.

There’s also some really great little nuggets of wisdom from Rolly about working and life in general. One of them is: believe in the people that work for you and turn them loose, because you’ll end up with a much better product. Another: accept life as it’s handed to you and just enjoy it, and have a sense of humor.

One more thing – I was amused to learn that one of Walt’s favorite sayings was “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” for anything that irritated him. (Just wait ’till you read the cute little story about the Christmas present Rolly made for Walt involving the the word “Shit” – his favorite cuss word.) There are a million other little stories and they’re all so fun.

Do yourself a favor, fellow readers – GET THIS BOOK. I highly recommend it to Disney fans or anyone who appreciates the art and design that goes into theme parks. Many thanks to Jeff Heimbuch for all his hard work putting the book together – it was well worth it!

You can purchase a paperback copy of “It’s Kind of a Cute Story” on Amazon for $20.70 (17% off! Eligible for free shipping!) or the Kindle Edition for $4.99. If you’re in the SoCal area, there are a few chances coming in a few weeks to meet Rolly Crump and get your copy signed. Visit the official book site for details.

(Note: My review is unbiased; I purchased this book myself and I have no personal or working connection with the authors or publishers.)

A Little Perspective

“You know what I’m craving? A little.. perspective. That’s it! I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?” -Anton Ego, Ratatouille

anyone can cook

I love the film Ratatouille. I think it’s one of Disney•Pixar’s strongest films, and it was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Anton Ego, of course, is the “villain,” the sinister food critic who writes a scathing review that damages the reputation of Gusteau’s restaurant (and claims the heartbroken chef’s life).

But after tasting a remarkable dish created by a “tiny chef” named Remy that brings back memories of Mother’s home-cooked meals, he has a change of heart. In his review he states: “The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

Much like Gusteau’s restaurant, The Walt Disney Company is haunted by the memory of the untimely death of its founder, leaving subsequent leaders the challenge of making products that appeal to a modern generation while living up to the lofty standards that were set early on. The results are mixed.

And just as “anyone can cook,” anyone can be a critic. With America’s right to free speech as their ally, any average Joe with an Internet connection can make a free account on a blog, forum, Twitter, YouTube etc. and say pretty much whatever they want about anything. Even the most seemingly insignificant details on any subject can be documented, scrutinized and endlessly debated. The Disney fan community, for better or worse, is no exception.

So, why for this blog? Let me explain.

Chances are pretty good that if you’re reading this, you know me as @DLthings or @DLtoday on Twitter. I started those accounts (way before the official @DCAToday account entered the picture, by the way) because I love Disneyland. I love its colorful history, the people who built, maintain and operate it, and the sights, sounds and feelings you experience just by having the privilege of being there.

And I do think I’m very privileged. I grew up not 10 miles away from the Matterhorn, and ever since those special once-a-year visits to the park in my early childhood (which quickly led to more and more frequent visits as time went on) I was hooked. Everyone has that one special thing that they turn to again and again in different phases of their lives because it makes them happy. Disneyland just happens to be mine.

So I decided to start talking about it. Start sharing photos and breaking news. Start finding people who enjoy it just as much (or more) than I do.

In the Disney fan community, there are lots of different perspectives. This blog is to share my perspective, for things which I think deserve more than 140 characters to explore.

Now, I don’t think my opinion is better or more important than anyone else’s. I don’t think everything is magical, but I don’t hate everything either. And I don’t claim to be an expert on how The Walt Disney Company operates, having little to no experience with managing a theme park nor leading a giant entertainment conglomerate that just keeps getting bigger and bigger. I’m just a fan.

Nevertheless, I think I have some unique insights as a fan that might interest you. My photography could never compete with the likes of, say, Andy Castro or Tom Bricker, but I would like to share a few photos. Offer my observations on what I think works and what I think could be better. Point out something in the parks you may not have noticed before. Review a couple products or meals I’ve purchased. I’ll try to make it as entertaining as possible, and hey – it might help out with or even inspire future Disney trips of your own.

To paraphrase Anton Ego: I don’t like Disneyland, I LOVE it. If I don’t LOVE parts of it… well, I’m not afraid to say so.

And although I’m not forcing anyone to read my blog or agree with its contents, and by making a reference to something embedded in Disney nomenclature which I think you’ll all appreciate, I’m calling it Forced Perspective.

I welcome your feedback by leaving a comment in the space provided below. Thanks for reading, and make sure you follow me at @DLthings for future blog posts!