Disneyland is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in New Orleans Square in Disneyland. This was the very last Disneyland attraction for which Walt had direct input.
It was some of the most groundbreaking work ever put together for a theme park attraction, taking advantage of many things Walt and the people of WED learned from their work on the 1964 NY World’s Fair. This included the boat, ride system from Small World and Audio Animatronics from Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. The Pirates attraction is so popular, there is a version in almost every Disney park in the world. An entire Land is devoted to Pirates in Shanghai Disneyland, anchored by the ride in its newest manifestation. And let’s not forget the on-going movie franchise which continues to pack in the people.
This attraction is usually on everyone’s must do list for a Disney vacation. Visitors flock to this attraction and cry real tears when it is unavailable during maintenance periods. But, what is it, that after 50 years and countless, repeat rides and the proliferation of competing, high tech, high thrill them park rides, that still attracts us? After all, in theme park years, it’s an outdated, and un-spin tingling throwback to a simpler time in vacation entertainment?
Maybe it’s Walt’s hands on involvement in every aspect of the attraction, including taking it from its early planning stage as a walk-through wax museum-like experience to what we now have today. But, while Walt’s guiding hand was undoubtedly important, it’seasy to point to the many Disneyland attractions that were abandoned shortly after the park opened and since then, that all had Walt as part of the design team. Perhaps it’s the attractions ability to manage as many as 2,400 guests an hour. Because, who wants to waste their precious, expensive theme park time waiting in line. Uh, but guests will wait forever to experience Peter Pan’s Flight, an equally family friendly attraction, which only services a paltry 800 guests an hour. Can’t be because the queue is in out of the sun.
Many other WDW and Disneyland attraction queues are either inside or protected from the sun. And, while Disney Imagineers continue to make breakthroughs in Audio Animatronics and there have been only a few high tech additions to both US versions, WDW and Disneyland attractions like Star Tours, Soarin’ and Fantasmic make much more liberal use of technology. So what makes Pirates of the Caribbean such a fan favorite?
Here’s my take. As with all of Walt’s successes, whether it was animated or live film or theme park attraction it begins and ends with telling a great story. The attraction plays like a novel or movie. It has an opening that sucks us in, like the first sentence of a book.
Psst! Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys.
It may not be Dickens, “It was the best of times . . “, but, it makes us want to go on. Next we get a little thrill to move us to the edge of our seats compliments of a drop (or two) in the dark. Then we are eased into the Pirate world through scenes that develop place and time. The setup is followed by an eye-opening “curtain up” into the pirate world. The first unforgettable scene depicts the shelling of the fort by the Pirate ship.
Throughout the ride there’s humor and constant eye candy to keep us engaged in each of the scenes as the story unfolds. Each ride offers an opportunity to discover something new. Finally, there’s a socko, fire climax and the final scenes close out the story. All this takes place in a completely immersive experience of visuals, sound effects, dialogue and music. Who needs virtual reality when fantasy-reality can make us feel like we have entered into the world of the story.
Convinced yet why you keep riding again and again? Well, there’s more. Walt insisted that no detail was too small to be overlooked in the design and creation of park attractions. (Disney Imagineering continues this practice today). Canons don’t just fire from the Pirate ship, you feel the rush of air and see and hear the canon balls hit the water. When a Pirate shoots a gun, it doesn’t just make a noise, there’s an associated ping as the musket ball contacts an object, which might move as physics cause and effect demands. Costumes are finely detailed and crafted and each of the pirates have distinct facial characteristics. Most are appropriately dirty and whiskered .
While there is focus in each of the scenes on the primary action, like the Auction, across the river to our right are the potential bidders, calling out, laughing and making noise. In the Sacking of the Town scene, one of the bound prisoners shivers while waiting his possible turn to be dunked in the well. Who hasn’t secretly fantasized about hopping out of the boat and boarding the ship in the harbor or exploring the town and finding out what’s behind those doors and windows. As many times as you ride Pirates, you might still discover new things.
So, we’ve looked at story, costume, makeup and set dressing. The last part of any good movie is the soundtrack. Not only does X. Atencio’s simple melody add to the chaos and activity in , but, I don’t think anyone leaves the attraction without humming the tune or trying to sing the complicated lyrics. As far as I’m concerned, this is the cherry on the sundae. That song is in your head forever.
So even though Pirates of the Caribbean is not the highest tech or thrilling attraction in the Disney parks, it maintains its status as one of the most loved and talked about creations of Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers. I look forward to experiencing it again and hopefully, getting a chance to experience the newer versions of the attraction in other countries.