Disneyland installs Disney ads in the 'It's a Small World' ride

Last week, Disneyland re-opened its legendary, 45-year-old "it's a small world" boat ride after a lavish renovation. It looks fantastic: Colors are vibrant, lighting as rich as sugar frosting, and sounds crisp with CD quality. But there's one crucial difference between the new ride and the one you remember from your childhood: It's now stocked with Disney characters from the DVD shelf.

The ride has always been a slow-moving drift through rooms populated by dolls and robots incessantly chanting the same 48-bar tune that's dressed up with orchestrations from various world regions. They're meant to represent many of the world's most prominent cultures through the most genial stereotypes imaginable. My first exposure to many world cultures was through the attraction, which I first rode as an infant. Indeed, it was originally created as an attraction for the 1964 World's Fair--the cheerful, kid-populated world party was meant to be a promotion for UNICEF. Now, though, its philanthropic origins mostly forgotten, this classic has been retrofitted to be a showplace for the most popular characters from Disney's animated canon.

Peter Pan and Tinker Bell fly above Alice in Wonderland in the United Kingdom section. Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket appear in Italy, accompanied by the cleverly embedded strains of "When You Wish Upon a Star." The new character additions mostly fall along roughly nationalistic lines (Mulan in China, Aladdin in the pan-Asian area), Some emphatically American characters now intrude, imperialistically, in international sections: Lilo and Stitch, from Hawaii, preside on a surfboard in Polynesia, and Donald Duck surfaces in Mexico.

As Saturday Night Live is shilling for Pepsi and 30 Rock hiding ads in its characters' dialogue, it was only a matter of time before Disneyland amped up the product-placement trend. After all, what is Disneyland but one giant ad for the Disney stable of characters? Disneyland itself was created in the image of its ads on ABC's prime time programming, after all.

That "Small World" was originally built as a charity-minded effort in the years following the Cuban Missle Crisis is perhaps best forgotten. The concept of making room for Disney trademarks in the ride--one of the few to appear in all five of the company's worldwide resorts--began at Hong Kong Disneyland. The Disneyland version marks its first appearance Stateside.

There are now very few classic Disney rides that haven't been retrofitted to carry some kind of cross-promotion burden at Disneyland--Johnny Depp has been injected into Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion shills "The Nightmare Before Christmas" during the end of every year, making them a kind of ad-within-an-ad.

When I rode
the revitalized Fantasyland attraction several times last week, the children on my boat were no longer lulled into awestruck silence as they once were during the ride. Now they are seeking out known Disney commodities in a 10-minute game of Where's Waldo. They don't work to identify the countries they pass, but to be the first to spot the Disney regular.

Will that foster international awareness among the next generation of American children? It's hard to say. But the new ride is likely to make Disney a little more money in souvenirs than it did when it was populated solely by sing-songy cherubs.
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