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Behind the Ride: Pirates of the Caribbean

The Experience: Meeting dastardly pirates but living to tell the tale

The Trick: One of the first implementations of Audio-Animatronics (AAs)

Another invention from the 1964 New York World’s Fair was the audio animatronic (AA). The robotic version of Abraham Lincoln was capable of so many movements that critics expressed amazement at its realism. That was the first generation of the software. After the fair ended, Imagineers devoted lots of resources to improving the nascent technology. They understood that Pirates of the Caribbean was a perfect attraction for this style of storytelling.

The purpose of AAs is to mimic human behavior repeatedly during the course of a day. A single AA will have a handful of actions that they perform. Giving one too many mannerisms would require guests to ride multiple times to see the full suite of an AA’s programming. With their new attraction, Imagineers wanted a bunch of pirates who would look and act the part without overwhelming audiences. Disney didn’t want to scare its guests too much. As silly as that statement sounds, it was a legitimate concern in the early days of the attraction. That’s part of the reason why 53 AA birds and animals (such as an adorable key-holding dog) join approximately 70 humans, many of whom are pirates. These creatures provide a soothing backdrop to reassure guests that they’re safe.

Image: Disney

What Disney has always loved about AAs is that they’re like actors that the company doesn’t have to pay. Sure, there’s the installation cost and related maintenance fees, but AAs are basically robotic slaves. Each one at Pirates of the Caribbean tells the same story several times every hour. They’ve done this so well that a few of them have taken on a life of their own. Everyone knows the Pooped Pirate, the husband dunked in water, and the prisoners trying to escape a fire. The technology for these AAs is more than half a century old. The reason why they’ve maintained popularity is that Imagineers built them so lifelike in the first place. Of course, the most famous AA at Pirates of the Caribbean today is much newer…

The Experience: Watching Captain Jack Sparrow bask in the golden glow of treasures

The Trick: Updating a storied ride to reflect a wildly popular movie franchise

Perhaps no attraction at a Disney theme park better exemplifies the timeless but sometimes circular nature of Disney storytelling. At the start of the new millennium, Walt Disney Pictures attempted to evolve several popular attractions into films. Their goal was to enhance the reputations of rides by adding a movie presence.

Two of the attempts didn’t go so well. The Haunted Mansion, an Eddie Murphy movie, exited theaters with only $76 million in domestic box office against a $90 million budget. And you probably don’t even remember the other film. The Country Bears, based on Country Bear Jamboree, grossed only $18 million, barely half of its $35 million budget. The middle film’s popularity makes up for those two disappointments, though. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise became a huge hit, with The Curse of the Black Pearl becoming the third most popular movie of 2003. Then, Dead Man’s Chest shattered the opening weekend box office record on its way to becoming the number one movie of 2006.

Image: Disney

To celebrate the hallmark box office achievements, Disney decided to introduce characters from the film franchise into the ride. In other words, the movie based on the ride became the inspiration for parts of the ride that were now based on the movie. I get a headache just thinking about it. Anyway, Disney added Captain Barbossa to the deck of the Wicked Wench and Davy Jones and Blackbeard in the opening mists of the attraction.

More importantly, they added a new scene where everyone’s favorite miscreant, Captain Jack Sparrow, lives the dream of every pirate. He discovers a room full of gold and jewels that Disney fans suspect is the proverbial Treasure Vault that the Pooped Pirate mentions. The entire set piece is the end of the ride, meaning that a character who didn’t exist when Imagineers first created Pirates of the Caribbean is now the showstopper that sends theme park tourists off with a huge smile on their faces. Sparrow is arguably the most iconic new Disney character of the 21st century, and the new version of the ride befits that status.

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