The Fifth Happiest Place on Earth

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Mark Ashman / Hong Kong Disney Land / AP

Minnie Mouse, clad in traditional Chinese dress, poses in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland in Hong Kong.

"Zippity Doo Dah" sounds more dreary than cheery as it loops through a distant sound system in the near vacant parking lot of Hong Kong Disneyland's multi-billion-dollar theme park. It's 2 p.m. on Sunday, a peak hour for family fun, but Hong Kong's Magical Kingdom is a little short on enchanted subjects. The fifth branch of the Happiest Place on Earth has been criticized for being too small and offering too few rides, but the The Walt Disney Company hopes to inject a little fairy dust into the place by adding a hitherto missing ingredient: the iconic "It's A Small World" ride — a boat tour through an air-conditioned world of singing and dancing dolls sporting Disney's idea of their country's traditional costumes in locales both real and imagined. ("The Islands" features representatives of Hawaii alongside those of New Guinea; while Eskimos play at the "North Pole," which, of course, no humans inhabit.)

A feature of all Disneyland parks except Hong Kong — until now — the "Small World" ride debuted at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. And it exemplified the optimistic post-World War II attitude of inclusivity and global understanding that drove the creation of such institutions as the United Nations, although from the perspective of a victorious and magnanimous industrialized West. Having spent many hours on the ride in my California youth, I couldn't help but wonder how Disney would translate the message of "Small World" in an era so profoundly different — particularly at a theme park whose desired customers are those who see the world through the cultural prism not of the industrialized West, but of a rising Asia.

The company's answer to the challenge of updating and translating "It's a Small World" appears to lie in improved special effects and cross-promotional branding. As the Hong Kong ride's water propulsion system nudged our craft past scenes familiar from my childhood — the Taj Mahal, the rainforest, the singing mermaids — it became clear that the basic concept and signature, blocky 1960s motifs of Disney artist Mary Blair had been retained. The Hong Kong sets look more vibrant thanks to lighting techniques, while a more sophisticated sound system belts out "it's a world of hopes; it's a world of tears" in nine languages. The "Asia" component here has been expanded to include Cambodia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and a bigger China, but the Chinese acrobat dolls still spin plates, the Scandinavian dolls are still platinum blond, and the Africa section is still dark and jungly. According to Joe Lanzisero, creative senior vice president of Disney's "Imagineering" division, the ride is as relevant as ever. "This is such a universal theme — seeing the world through the innocent eyes of children. Could you think of another time in history where that message is more needed?" he says. "It's a message that's timeless, and it's a message that's now. It needs to be heard."

There has, however, been one big change — the strategic insertion of 38 Disney cartoon characters into what had previously been a simulacrum of the real world. Here, the eskimos share the North Pole with Bambi and Thumper; Mulan flies a kite in Asia; Cinderella and Prince Charming wave to passing boats from their castle. The additions, when first proposed, inspired a small but fierce cry of sacrilege in the Disney blogosphere. "Everybody is so precious about what we do," Lanzisero objects. "At Disneyland, just a few hours into opening, [Walt Disney] started redoing things. It's no fun just to do the same thing all the time."

Remaining competitive in an increasingly crowded global entertainment market challenges Disney to find the right balance between the formulaic familiar and the innovative, and thus far that blend proved elusive in Hong Kong —the gateway to a vast number of Asian visitors whose exposure to Disney storylines is lower. Last year's annual report noted that revenue growth at the resort in Paris was offset by Hong Kong's low attendance. Management hopes that "Small World" will help turn things around, but that may be a tall order, even for over 2,000 pounds of glitter and 241 dolls.

Still, to anyone familiar with the Disneyland experience elsewhere, the Hong Kong facility has its advantages: In Tomorrowland, the wait-time to get onto the park's single thrill ride, Space Mountain, hovered at around five minutes — a kid's fantasy, even if that's a company's nightmare. Kyle Smith, a casino performer in the nearby gambling mecca of Macau, waits for his friends near the ride's entrance. "I've been away from the States, so having this familiar place is nice," says the 24-year-old, visiting for the third time in less than a year. He recommends the park, even though he believes it could use a few more rides. "I was also thinking more Asian-themed exhibits," he adds. "But maybe they're trying to stay away from that."