March 18, 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: 45 Years of Adventure!

Walt Disney Imagineering's groundbreaking Pirates of the Caribbean is the most celebrated of all theme park attractions and rightfully so. The history behind it and the exploitation of it makes for a fascinating tale.

Walt meets a new cast member.

When this incredible attraction debuted at Disneyland on this day in 1967, Walt and his team knew they had created something at once cutting edge and timeless, a real crowd pleaser. Little did they know it would become the enduring standard for theme park adventures. Disney's team had created the grandest "E Ticket" of them all, the ultimate dark ride, and my personal favorite of everything Imagineering has built.

A new "E Ticket" standard is born!

Imagine a Pirates of the Caribbean as a walk through interactive wax museum. It almost happened. Really. Thanks to the overwhelming success of The Enchanted Tiki Room and the public's favorable response to Audio-Animatronics, Walt and company embraced the challenge to expand on the original concept and create the masterpiece cruise through treacherous Caribbean waters. Imagineers were off to work.

Pirates finally take up residence in New Orleans Square.

Once the story was firmly established, sketches were drawn and humorous gags by the great Marc Davis were sprinkled throughout to keep the perfect balance between threatening and inviting, realism and fantasy- to a point. An iconic song, "Yo Ho (A Pirates Life for Me) was created to tie it all together and make it a memorable experience. Glad they added it, but they didn't need to worry!

Above photographs copyright The Walt Disney Company.

At opening, the unprecedented 15 minute boat ride would encompass highly detailed sets and showcase almost 130 Audio-Animatronic humans and animals. The elaborate story determined a need for wide open spaces for battle on the open sea, large caverns, a burning village, and backstage facilities for maintenance of both the attraction and its vehicles. No one would forget this, but where could they house such an ambitious and space consuming project?

The brilliance of Marc Davis
found in this beautiful character concept.

In some very significant ways, the space limitations in Walt's original kingdom forced the Imagineer's hands in its eventual design. The small amount of space within the park and the unprecedented magnitude of the scope and scale for the lengthy cruise were at odds. Their ingenious solution takes guests under the tracks of the Disneyland and Santa Fe Railroad, accessing open space beyond the park's perimeter.

It's best to obey the captain.

The end result of taking boats into a darkened cavern and then over a waterfall created thrills for passengers and appropriately set the emotional stage for the show. The lack of extra land at the park some saw as shortsightedness and a problem for future expansion became an advantage. While being a planning, design, and engineering nightmare, it was one of the attractions greatest strengths. The extra time needed to get guests from the landing dock to the waterfalls also gave them time to be fully immersed into the story, removing them from the real world. The smaller acreage of Disneyland forced creativity but also begat charm, intimacy, and vitality, demanding Imagineers struggled with new ways to get every attraction built with the final result they desired.

Deluxe book celebrating the attraction (front).

And the back.

The a new cover and inside map from
the "making of" souvenir book
once it arrived at
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Attraction music!

When New Orleans Square opened in 1966 shortly before Walt's untimely death, the art of Disney Imagineering was displayed at its finest. The beautiful wrought iron work, the delicate colors, and the foliage, blended with unique shopping and dining experiences true to the original city and new to the west coast. Disneyland was no ordinary theme park, and the bar for excellence had once again been raised. The pirate adventure would debut later creating guest anticipation- and guaranteed return visits to the park.

The attraction entrance coyly hid behind a very normal looking facade. A most elegant sign gently announced the experience within. Curious guests venturing beyond the doors encountered quiet little watercraft silently gliding along under a moonlit Louisiana bayou filled with fireflies. Instant atmosphere, instant mystery, instant crowds.

Artwork showing the gorgeous Blue Bayou Restaurant.

It was an attraction designed to embrace all the senses: unbelievable sights, captivating sounds, untouchable but desirable props and atmosphere, musty smelling caverns and waters, and taste in the form of delectable dishes at the adjoining Blue Bayou Restaurant.

Original entrance in Florida.

Enhanced exterior treatment post Captain Jack Sparrow.

The new enhancements to Florida's fortress
look even better in person.
(Photographer unknown.)

So popular was Pirates of the Caribbean, that its lack of presence at the 1971 opening of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom created quite the stir among guests. Complaints came in droves to Main Street's City Hall, and the effect changed the course of Walt Disney World's future.

Master model for the Magic Kingdom
with Thunder Mesa on the right,
and not a hint of Caribbean Plaza
where it would eventually arise
behind the Sunshine Pavilion.

Sadly, it derailed plans for building Master Imagineer Marc Davis's epic- and very expensive- Thunder Mesa with its Cowboy and Indians' Western River Expedition. Once thought to be the more grand and ambitious daughter of its predecessor, plans for its completion were shelved, the multilayered project eventually dying a slow death.

"No, ma'am. No Pirates here."

Pirates was quickly approved and put into place to please the demand of the crowds, debuting in December of 1973. Quite the Christmas gift!

Set sail from Caribbean Plaza!

With its unlimited land, you might think the Imagineers would create something very elaborate and even more impressive, a new Pirates attraction that would surpass the original. They did not. Money may have been a factor as Walt Disney World had just opened, draining the company of its resources. There was also the rush to quickly please guest demand. In the end, I believe this was the real reason the cruise itself felt rushed through the design process and is ultimately all the worse because of it.

Florida's Pirates adventure is not without its unique differences or its charms. But it is the complex which houses it versus the boat ride itself which stuns. The beautiful setting here is Caribbean Plaza, a newly created subdivision within Adventureland. Walking from the hub of the Magic Kingdom, guests come into the plaza as they pass the Jungle River Cruise and the Sunshine Pavilion.

A Magic Kingdom with Pirates circa 1974.

It's a fairly jarring transition from the African inspired then tropical, Polynesian feeling area to the islands of the Caribbean, but somehow its works. The sound of steel drums, the stucco walls and the red tile roofs draw visitors forward and signal their arrival.

Every pirate has his parrot- even at the Magic Kingdom!

The very prominent Castillo Del Morro is found at the end of this area, just around the corner from the far end of Frontierland. (Unknown to me prior to research for this post, the castle's clock tower has its own name, Torre Del Sol.)

An "E Ticket" smash!

The building for the Magic Kingdom version of this attraction is much more impressive than what houses the California original. Traveling through the halls of the ancient fortress, guests are increasingly removed from the sunny outside world and into the darkness. Menacingly, the fortress also houses a prison, and guests quietly walk past captured pirates left to rot. One of Imagineer Marc Davis' most macabre gags resides here: two skeletons play a game of chess, hopelessly locked in an eternal stalemate.

This decidedly non-family friendly scene is thankfully removed from the youngest of eyes, only visible by much taller tourists. Much like Disneyland's later Haunted Mansion and its stretching room and art gallery, (or even the detailed queue of the Indiana Jones Adventure or the equally foreboding hotel lobby of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror), this lengthy maze of a queue brings guests into the story long before boarding the boats, making it an integral part of the overall experience.

Finally arriving at the landing, guests boarding watercraft can't help but notice the storm ahead- and notice the lack of returning passengers who have made the journey before them. The dim lighting of the dock and the lightning ahead provide no assurance of safety. Creepy caverns lie ahead. It's a much darker, more sinister world than what travelers encounter in New Orleans Square, with its happy diners across the way at the gorgeous Blue Bayou restaurant.

From here, the beginning of the cruise is shortened compared to the earlier west coast incarnation and minus one waterfall drop. The waterborne portion of the attraction experience is half as long as that in California. It's strange and noticeable to those who have experienced the Disneyland version but not nearly as important to guests who have not. Going forward, the bulk of the story, sets, and characters remains mostly the same. There are a few differences, the biggest one being the end of the attraction.

Concept art from my 1972 Walt Disney World
souvenir book. Click on it to see it larger.

In California, we go into the underground prison and wind up being target practice for a small crew of drunken scallywags. Here at the conclusion of the Florida story, we stumble upon a brand new and very impressive scene: the pirates have discovered the treasure room, and the guards commissioned to protect the shimmering loot are the captives, bound and gagged.

The same scene realized.
A Walt Disney World postcard from

It's a very effective and startling ending to our pirate adventure. What's even more startling is that the dock to disembark is seen by us even as we are finishing our journey. Even though it is a minor detail, this breaks the flow of the story and reminds us we are in a theme park. Up a speed ramp we go back into the Florida daylight.

Making its Tokyo Disneyland appearance.

When it came time to build Tokyo Disneyland, the Japanese executives were smart enough to demand a Pirates of the Caribbean attraction all their own. Choosing between the Disneyland version and that found in the Magic Kingdom, they opted for the longer, more elaborate cruise over the Magic Kingdom's truncated one. In an odd twist, Tokyo's Pirates is found in a mini New Orleans Square, a subdivision in their Adventureland. The ride itself mirrors California's minus one waterfall drop and is also shorter in length than the original.

Oui! Pirates invade the City of Lights.

Given that Imagineer extraordinaire Tony Baxter was at the helm of designing EuroDisneyland, it is no surprise that Pirates of the Caribbean would become the centerpiece of a new Adventureland incarnation. The entire park would be the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever built, learning from all the successes and failures of each previous kingdom.

Tony Baxter with the Disneyland Paris model.
Pirates of the Caribbean is behind him
at the center left side of the photograph.

There's a well-known story of a very young Mr. Baxter riding the attraction long before its debut in California. It is said this was when Tony decided that he must become an Imagineer, so Pirates must hold a special place in his heart.

Pirates real and imaginary together- blasphemous!

Purists may wince at the fact the attraction is found next to a Peter Pan and its Neverland inspired Adventure Isle, but they may cringe even more so with the changes to the beloved journey. Or maybe its just the thought of Disneyland Paris itself.

A large model of the area courtesy Disney and More.
Buy the book- amazing!

The white stoned fortress that houses the attraction is a magnificent piece of work. Majestic and alluring, it demands to be noticed with slivers of precious Parisian sunlight landing on it and the surrounding sandy beach. No qualms here, its inside that counts, and it is here that the debate is born.

My first look and first photograph of it.
It's even better than the model!

Guests walk through its courtyards and enter the weathered fortress, wandering down its halls much the same as in Florida. The atmosphere becomes rich and dark. Lighting is minimal. Boarding the bateaux, guests round the bend and stumble upon visitors enjoying patio dining in the evening moonlight. Learning from the success of California's Blue Bayou and the penchant for fine dining in Europe, Imagineers made sure Paris' attraction included a Caribbean inspired Blue Lagoon restaurant with a seafood inspired menu. Diners may get to watch the boats glide by, but those on the attraction get to view some creatures of the sea emerging just outside the sight lines of those watching from the shore.

It's up we go!

Rounding a darkened corner, long time guests familiar to going down the waterfall at the American and Japanese versions on the attraction are surprised to find themselves going up the ramp like ship's cargo instead. This dramatic beginning and the first change to the classic version of the ride signals one of many, marking the beginning of the "Which is better?" discussion.

Reaching the top of the fortress, a swinging pirate on a rope glides overhead while prisoners remain inside a cel, still trying to convince that dog to bring them the key. Sounds of battle- and words of war in French and English- fill the air while the realization hits that the building is on fire. From the view high above, adventurers can see that pirates are taking the town as a battle ensues between their ship and the folks on the island. Suddenly, the boats plunge downward, heading straight into the battle between them. Cannonballs fly overhead.

Into the town, much is the same as in the previous three takes on the attraction. However, there's a new scene here, one so vital, so essential to every pirate story that we realize it is missing in other versions the minute we see it: Sword fighting. One pirate is challenged to a duel by a villager, defending the woman at risk. It is an excellently rendered addition, with the footwork of each man impressive and the swords clashing even more so. Kudos to the Imagineers who chose to take this on and to the ones who took the time to make it actually work.

Here is a "flow through" map of Disneyland Paris' version.

The burning town is in full swing by now, and guests enter the arsenal. This time, all that dynamite finally explodes, and boats are plunged down another waterfall into the grottoes below. Skeletons abound, reminding us "Dead Men Tell No Tales", while guests aboard the railroad have a chance to look into the scenery from the safety of their seats. Our multilingual Parisian adventure ends similarly to the way Anaheim's begins but with a twist. The very alive skull and crossbones overhead gives riders the exit spiel in several languages, the English version spoken by a John Wayne imitator. A nice little tribute to the fine man who loved Orange County and made it his home. (And a great idea should Western River Expedition ever get built!)

To answer the debate, although the French take on the attraction is one third less in length than that in California, I find this version of Pirates of the Caribbean surpasses the original. That is, perhaps, until I ride the one at Shanghai Disneyland.

Planned for Hong Kong, shipped to Shanghai!

In between Hong Kong Disneyland and the premier of the first Disney park in mainland China, Walt Disney Pictures announced a little film in development based on the Pirate attraction. Many folks expressed disdain for the project and predicted its failure. That is until its starring role was given to an actor by the name of Johnny Depp.

The influence of the films is felt!

Captain Jack Sparrow now decorates Disneyland's queue.

Captain Barbosa takes over the ship!

Jack meets Johnny.

Its hearty success would mean many sequels. This would change the face of Pirates of the Caribbean attractions worldwide, those built and those to come. New effects and three Audio-Animatronic Jack Sparrows were added to the attraction. Everywhere but in Paris- for now.

Jack seeks treasure while Barbosa seeks Jack...

...and he finds it after all.

Tampering with a classic is risky business, but the Imagineers did not destroy its original flavor. Instead, they chose to introduce the attraction to an audience only familiar with the films.

Want more proof it was meant for the park?
Just enlarge the image.

Oddly, Hong Kong Disneyland was built without its own high voyage on Caribbean waters. Some will say it was a cultural consideration due to real pirates still being in the area, but I would venture to guess its absence is due to the greedy actions of Disney's corporate pirates who tried to build yet another park as cheaply as possible. This incredibly huge blunder, and other shortcuts to the park, brought much less treasure into the company storerooms.

You've got to enlarge this one!
From the excellent Progress City USA blog.

Disney executives will not make the same mistake in Shanghai. When the attraction line up is finally announced, that park's Pirates of the Caribbean will be the very first to be designed around the storyline of the films and its main character Jack Sparrow. Rumor and concept artwork tend to indicate the adventure will be as much thrill ride as dark ride. In fact, click on the above concept art to see the plans for an entire land built around the film's success.

A recently rebuilt entrance handles the continued crowds.

An attraction so celebrated, its even art!

Commemorative plaque at Disneyland in California

The beautiful plaque at the entrance to the Disneyland original attests to the attraction's iconic status and its enduring popularity. Although Jack Sparrow and company now make an appearance and update the show for today's audiences, the fact is, Disneyland and this attraction are a national treasure.

More posters attest to the adventures ongoing popularity.

Concept for an undeveloped Pirates themed water park.

The ride still impresses and inspires. From Lego sets to Vinylmation and family games and all the merchandise imaginable, Pirates of the Caribbean is the ultimate Disney creation from both a creative and financial standpoint. As an attraction, it remains among the Imagineers best efforts, period. Forty five years later, this swashbuckling cruise is still the ultimate attraction, a measurement tool in which all other themed attractions are compared.

(Artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company. Most photographs by Mark Taft.)

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