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Behind the Ride: Pirates of the Caribbean

Perhaps no ride is as indelibly linked to Walt Disney as Pirates of the Caribbean, which is bittersweet since he didn’t quite live to see its park opening. He died only a few months prior to the debut of what would become a defining Disney attraction. Thankfully, the Imagineers that Uncle Walt had trained were dutiful in honoring his memory. They worked diligently to craft a masterpiece worthy of the everlasting reputation of their beloved boss. And the ride they built has stood the test of time.

The Walt Disney Company even unearthed other ways to expand the reach of the concept. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has earned $3.73 billion in worldwide box office and counting. It’s the wildly popular film adaptation of the even more popular Disneyland attraction. People love both so much that they sometimes forget that the ride pre-dates the movie by almost 40 years.

Image: Disney

Pirates of the Caribbean’s roots go back so far that future film star Johnny Depp was only four years old when Disneyland introduced the ride to the public, while Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom wouldn’t be born until 10 and 18 years later. It’s that old, which makes its sustained excellence all the more impressive. You’ve almost certainly jumped in a boat and headed through pirate country at some point. Let’s take this opportunity to go Behind the Ride, explaining all the brilliant, eternal aspects of one of the greatest theme park attractions of all-time.

The Experience: Wandering through pirate territory without having to walk the plank

The Trick: A boat ride that started in New York City

When you board your hardy vessel and cross the narrow sea to Disney’s recreation of the Louisiana Bayou, you’re effectively entering a Disney movie set. Uncle Walt loved to frame his attractions in this way, and he realized toward the end of his life that Pirates of the Caribbean might be his swan song. Disney suddenly learned that he was in the final days of cancer as his Imagineers worked on the ride. Its quality was so important to him that he asked for one last contraption from his Imagineers. They built a gurney system so that he could easily move from set to set at Pirates of the Caribbean. He micromanaged more than usual on the ride, but he didn’t live to see the result. The attraction opened at Disneyland three months and 11 days after his death.

The work that Walt Disney surveyed existed across several sets. To orchestrate seamless guest movement from one location to the next, he had to throw out the initial plans for the ride. As originally discussed, Pirates of the Caribbean was intended as a museum celebrating pirate life, especially as told by Robert Louis Stevenson. The author's seminal work, Treasure Island, was a source of inspiration for the attraction.

Image: Disney

In order to tell stories akin to those of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins, Imagineers settled on a few iconic images from pirate lore. They chose many unforgettable visuals such as a cannonball attack from a buccaneering vessel against a well-defended island fortress, a series of imprisoned brigands trying to retrieve a key from an unaware (or too-aware) dog, a pooped pirate clutching a pirate map, and an auction involving justifiably unhappy wenches.

The trick the park planners faced was in getting theme park tourists to the proper locations at the correct times. Early stages of their plan didn’t require this kind of precision. With a museum design, guests could travel from location to location on their own terms. Once Pirates of the Caribbean changed to a ride, they needed a new strategy. Fortunately, some Imagineers were inventing the technology that would dramatically increase the throughput of the ride. In the preparation phase of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Disney employees faced this issue for multiple pavilions. They eventually realized that a track-based system could provide the rails that guaranteed riders stayed on the correct path AND moved at an acceptable speed.

Image: Disney

Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t a true omnimover in that the boats don’t all connect to one another, but the underlying premise is similar. If anything, it’s closest in nature to It’s a Small World, and I mean the original version from the World’s Fair. Sure, you ride a seaworthy pirate boat that sails from scene to scene, but Disney has your boat on tracks throughout the ride. This innovation is one we take for granted today. It was historic in the 1960s, though. The fake open-ended nature of the ship allows the guest to feel like they’re on open sea with navigational charts that can lead to anywhere, but the actual path is finite. Your destination on the watery bayou is fixed. That's also why Disney asks that you keep your hands inside the boat at all times. You could easily catch a finger in the machinery beneath the boat.

The boat ride's quality is due to Disney's diligence. While on the gurney, Disney would go from location to location, demanding to see the set pieces from the same perspective of a future guest. Everything from the original version of the ride that remains is exactly as Uncle Walt intended you to watch it. You’re a guest on his movie set when you board Pirates of the Caribbean, and the boat track assures you of experiencing it the precise way that he wanted.

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