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Originally published Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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It's an updated Small World at Disneyland

As Walt Disney Co. set out to renovate the classic Disneyland ride, It's a Small World, the company's Imagineers had one thing in mind: Don't mess it up.

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As Walt Disney Co. set out to renovate It's a Small World at Disneyland, the company's Imagineers had one thing in mind: Don't mess it up.

Despite being one of the Southern California theme park's oldest attractions, the ride is among the most popular — drawing about 6.7 million riders a year.

The challenge was to give the beloved attraction new vibrancy without altering the stylized look created by the Disney artist whose childlike illustrations influenced such classic animated films as "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan."

The Imagineers consulted illustrator Mary Blair's original drawings for inspiration in one of the most ambitious updates of the ride since it opened in 1966.

After a yearlong renovation, it reopened earlier this month with a new scene that depicts the "Spirit of America," a relocated rain forest and 29 Disney and Pixar characters inserted in the countries where their stories take place.

Whether the public will embrace the changes remains to be seen. Some Disney purists have howled at the notion of Disney characters intruding on It's a Small World — saying that their presence would destroy a historic work of art. Even the Blair family wrote a letter that labeled the move a "gross desecration."

But Marty Sklar, executive vice president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts and Imagineering ambassador, said the changes were subtle.

Change was unavoidable. The ride was built by Walt Disney for the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York and transplanted to Southern California. After nearly 45 years, it was showing its age.

The water flume, which in its day represented a milestone in ride design (it could effortlessly handle 3,000 passengers an hour), had been patched so many times that the boats would get hung up. Disney needed to close the attraction to replace the leaky water channel and the boats. The company wouldn't say how much the renovation cost.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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