Today we are sailing the dark, eerie waters of Pirates of the Caribbean. This highly themed boat ride is rich in history, highly influential in the greater Disney library, and one that continues to grow in popularity worldwide. Let’s look at where this ride came from, where it is today, and where the winds of change might blow it tomorrow. Batten down the hatches, it is time to get started with our…
Know Before You Go Essential Facts
- The ride is located in the Magic Kingdom in Adventureland
- There is no height requirement
- Fastpass + is offered
- The fright factor is 4 out of 5
- Guests must transfer to a standard wheelchair, and then to ride vehicle
- Audio description and handheld captioning are available
- The ride is just over 8:30 minutes long
- The ride opened on December 15, 1973. It has been refurbished multiple times, including two major refurbishments in 2006 and 2015.
The rich history of Pirates of the Caribbean dates back to the early days of Disneyland. If you listened to our very first podcast on It’s a Small World, you may remember Pirates wasn’t originally conceived as a boat ride! Today, it seems like a no-brainer that a ride focused on pirates would take place on the water. However, the original plan was for a walk through exhibit. Think wax museum full of historical pirate legends like Captain Kidd, Captain Morgan and Blackbeard, and you have an idea of Walt’s original vision. Thanks to the overwhelming success of It’s a Small World at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, Disney saw the light and reimagined Pirates of the Caribbean as a boat ride. Although the ride was already under construction, the change from walk through exhibit to high capacity boat ride meant the hourly capacity would jump from 500 to 3,000!
The other big change that took place before the ride was realized was that of the ride’s characters. As we just mentioned, Walt originally envisioned the likes of Blackbeard and other historical pirates. However, he tasked Marc Davis with creating artwork for the ride’s figures and what he received was something very different. Davis did some character sketches showing a misfit crew of comedic pirates. His sketches portrayed a level of whimsy and fun that the original concept of stodgy historical pirates lacked. Someday we will do a podcast highlighting the work of Marc Davis and his tremendous impact on the rides of Disney’s early days. If you have ever been on The Jungle Cruise or The Haunted Mansion, you have seen some of his work. Think about the intrepid explorers being caught up the pole by the rhino on The Jungle Cruise, or, the frightfully fun hitchhiking ghosts at The Haunted Mansion. Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in Disney history is found right here on Pirates of the Caribbean: three desperate pirates find themselves locked in a jail cell with their freedom only a few feet away. The keys to their cell rest in the mouth of a mangy looking dog. They beckon the mutt with a whistle and a big bone, ready to tie a noose around his neck so they can grab the keys. All of these classic scenes came from the mind of Marc Davis.
With the characters fleshed out in a fun way, and the decision to turn the walk through exhibit into a boat ride, Pirates of the Caribbean was picking up speed. All that was left was a really good theme song…
“Yo Ho, Yo Ho a Pirate’s Life for Me” is the work of X. Atencio. Francis Xavier Atencio began his career with Disney as an animator in 1938. He later became an Imagineer and worked on many of our favorite rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. It is fascinating to me that he was so talented in multiple arenas. Not only was he a great artist, but he wrote this theme song which is still one of the most beloved songs in Disney parks today. Of course, Marc Davis and X. Atencio weren’t the only two talented people to help bring the ride to life. Alice Davis, Claude Coates, Yale Gracey, and Blaine Gibson were just a few of the other creative contributors. Walt himself oversaw the project until his death in December of 1966. Pirates was the last ride he personally supervised.
Before his passing, Walt had been talking up the ride on his television program and the public was eager to join the band of buccaneers Walt had been promising. The ride opened 3 months after his death, and although he wasn’t there to see it, the opening day festivities were a frenzy of fun. The Pirates of the Caribbean exploded onto the Disney scene that day! We won’t go into the details of the Disneyland version today, but stay tuned as we have plans to cover the original ride in depth in the foreseeable future. All you need to know for now is that the ride was a fan favorite from the beginning. So, when it came time to fill up the Magic Kingdom with rides, one would think Pirates of the Caribbean was a sure bet.
Visitors to the Magic Kingdom in 1971 thought so at least. So you can imagine their surprise when they arrived in Florida to find Disney’s most iconic ride from Disneyland had not made the journey to the Magic Kingdom. The most asked question of visitors in those first days was, “Where are the pirates?” This was a slight miscalculation on Disney’s part. The powers that be thought the state of Florida was too well entrenched in actual pirate history to have any interest in a fictional tale of plunder and mayhem. Instead, they had planned for another Marc Davis design called “The Western River Expedition.” That concept would have taken guests on a boat ride through the wild west rather than the high seas. It’s easy to see where Disney’s mindset was. East Coast visitors would be more interested in the less familiar old west, while West Coast visitors were more intrigued by pirates from the eastern Caribbean. Well, when you have a great ride, it transcends those geographic boundaries! Disney quickly scrapped plans for “The Western River Expedition” and began construction on the East Coast Pirates of the Caribbean. Don’t feel too bad for the Western River idea, it was eventually realized in some form through Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain.
In order to create Pirates of the Caribbean in Walt Disney World, the Imagineers had to squeeze the ride into a smaller footprint than the original. To this day, this causes the Disneyland faithful to proudly proclaim their pirates ride to be far superior to its Florida counterpart, but that’s a debate for later date. For now, it is safe to say visitors to Walt Disney World have affirmed the value of this version of the ride.
The Walt Disney World version takes you through a dark and dank-feeling Spanish fort known as Castillo Del Marro. This has always been one of my favorite queues because it really sets the mood for the ride ahead. You pass by cannons and stacks of cannon balls on your way to the boat loading dock. If you are in the standby queue, pay close attention to the pair of skeletons sitting down for a nice game of chess. Legend has it that Marc Davis originally set the chess board to represent a stale mate, a nice little joke to imagine these two pirates wasting away to nothing but bone as they were locked into a no-win situation. Over time the pieces have been moved, knocked over, and repositioned. The funny thing today is the debate that ensues over the pieces’ intended position. There are websites devoted to the chess pieces positions. I, myself, don’t recommend wasting away to nothing but bone while you take in this scene, but it’s a fun little tidbit to observe.
When you finally board your boat, get your little ones ready for a dark encounter. You begin by floating through a ghostly mist where either Davy Jones or Captain Blackbeard prepare you for what lies ahead. We are rating this a 4 out of 5 on the fright factor because most of the ride is very dark, the mood is playfully spooky, there are loud explosions of cannon fire, the town is engulfed in flames at one point, and the ride begins with a 14 foot plunge. This drop is the only time the boat really picks up speed, meaning the thrill comes from what you see more than what you feel.
After plunging down the 14 foot waterfall, the first couple of scenes feature skeletons, including a mermaid skeleton added in 2012. The infamous “Dead Men Tell No Tales” line echoes in the distance as you proceed past these haunting depictions. You’ll soon find yourself in the middle of a great battle. Captain Barbosa is on your left firing cannons at the nearby fort on your right. It is in this scene you will first hear the name Captain Jack Sparrow. It seems Barbosa is bombarding the town demanding to know the location of Captain Jack.
As the ride unfolds, Captain Jack can be seen hiding in various places throughout the different scenes. Of course, this story within a story was not always the case. This is perhaps the greatest example of Art imitating Audio-Animatronic Life imitating Art. The ride originally opened in 1973 in the Magic Kingdom, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Disney stumbled across a blockbuster hit in its film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” The pirate world from the ride served as the loose basis for an expanded universe featuring a new breakout star, Captain Jack Sparrow. Audiences fell in love with the new Johnny Depp character and his band of cursed counterparts. The movie brought in $46 million in its opening weekend and now stands at over $650 million to date. Just as popular demand brought the ride to The Magic Kingdom in the first place, it also brought about a major refurbishment in 2006.
Captain Jack Sparrow was added in Audio-Animatronic form in several scenes, most notably the final scene of the treasure room. The existing AA figures were left in their original positions for the most part, and Captain Jack was inserted into the existing scenes. Also in 2006, minor changes in costume and script were made to the ride. Another refurbishment in 2015 brought updates to the lighting, effects, and ride system. Today, the pirates of the East Coast are a blend of old and new. Most of the scenes retain their comedic character, although the script has changed over the years to reflect a pirate culture that is a little less rough around the edges.
If you are a long time visitor you will notice some of these changes. Originally, the mayor of old Port Royale was being dunked in the well by the pillaging pirates to ascertain the whereabouts of the town’s gold. Today, the poor mayor still goes in and out of the well water, but now is asked for the location of Captain Jack. The next scene depicts an auction of the town’s women, with the pirates yelling, “We Want’s the Redhead.” Pirates aren’t exactly romantics, and this appears to be the only way they know of acquiring some companionship. Originally, the following scene had the pirates chasing the towns women through their homes. Today, the roles have been reversed to show the town’s women chasing away the pirates. They may have been auctioned off, but in the current version the women fight back. Amid the mayhem, a pooped pirate sits near the shore. Originally, this slouch of a man highlighted the depravity of the pirate culture. Apparently tired from the pursuit of his favorite wench, the pirate held up her slip and offered passing guests to share his prize if they helped find the poor girl. Unbeknownst to him she hid in a barrel just over his shoulder.
Walt himself was a little apprehensive of the racy nature of scenes like this one and the wench auction. Still, it was ultimately decided these scenes were true to the nature of pirates. By the time Jack Sparrow came along, the darker side of pirate life was exchanged for the appeal of the anti-hero. Rather than focus on the less acceptable forms of pirate behavior, the film featured the rugged appeal of a renegade pirate in Captain Jack. So, parts of the ride followed suite, most notably the “pooped pirate.” The slouching man was left in place but the poor maiden’s slip was replaced by a treasure map, and the young girl herself was exchanged for another Captain Jack AA figure. Now, the “pooped pirate” boasts of finding treasure while Jack pops up from the barrel to look over his shoulder at the map.
With these changes, today’s ride offers a more family friendly look into the pirate realm. Pirates are portrayed more as gluttons and less as womanizers. Still, the bones of each scene are the same. Overall, I think the Imagineers have found good balance. There is enough of the original ride to satisfy the purists and enough of the new franchise to engage a younger audience. Interestingly, I think the classic tropes like the wench auction are still the most popular though. “We Wants the Redhead” is the most sought after souvenir in the ride’s gift shop.
The popularity of the ride has led to its expansion into other Disney parks across the globe. Tokyo Disney added pirates to their park in 1983, and Disneyland Paris added theirs in 1992. The most recent addition was June 16, 2016, with the opening of the long anticipated Shanghai Disneyland. Check out the video below for a full ride through.
I don’t think the scope of Shanghai can be recreated in The Magic Kingdom, but I do hold out hope that the technology of the newest version could be brought to the U.S. parks eventually. If we have learned anything from Pirates of the Caribbean through the years, it is that this ride can change as quickly as the loyalty of the pirates themselves. Originally planned as a walkthrough exhibit, transformed to a quirky boat adventure, and re-imagined with the addition of new characters, Pirates of the Caribbean is a ride with a life of its own.
This also makes it a fun ride to share with the family each time you visit Walt Disney World. You never know what position the chess pieces will be in, if the ghostly image of Davy Jones or Captain Blackbeard will be greeting you on the waterfall, what skeletons may have washed up on the beach, or what new characters might be added to the Audio-Animatronic crew. I hope you will channel your inner pirate next time you are in the parks and prepare for a swashbuckling good time!
Thank you so much for joining me today. Knowing you are out there getting excited about Disney, just like me, makes our hard work worthwhile. I hope that you have a great week. Now off with ya! Prepare to make sail, and make each day a ride worth taking!
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