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Behind the Ride: Pirates of the Caribbean

The Experience: Enjoying a spirited sea shanty

The Trick: Teaching an old dog that he was capable of a new trick

Image: Disney

When Disney adds atmosphere for a ride, they understand that music sets the tone better than almost anything. That’s why so many of your favorite Disney stories include memorable musical accompaniments. They believe in manipulating all five senses as much as possible, and a singalong song is one of their most proven methods to achieve this goal.  Even by Disney standards, the backstory for the most memorable song from Pirates of the Caribbean is weird, though.

Xavier Atencio, the Disney Legend, wasn’t a music man by trade. He was an illustrator and writer who had started with the company when he was still in his teens. Something Walt Disney loved to do with his employees was challenge them. He felt that forcing someone outside their comfort zone helped them expand their horizons. He would move employees around like pieces on a Chess board, and that’s how a writer without a musical background wound up as the lyricist for one of the best loved Disney songs.

Image: Disney

At Uncle Walt's request (really, a demand) the man known as X moved to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There, he discovered that the project was mostly finished. His boss wanted someone to tie the seemingly disparate pirate stories together, and he believed that X was the man for the job. In a moment of inspiration, the fledgling lyricist determined that a sea shanty was the missing ingredient for this otherwise impeccable attraction. He quickly wrote Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me), relying heavily on Disney musician George Bruns for the tune. The song was an instant Disney classic that virtually everyone in the free world can hum, even if they don’t fully appreciate what they’re doing. The lyrics and music are that catchy.

In an odd bit of trivia, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl wasn’t the first instance when a Disney movie used Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me). That honor belonged to Treasure Planet, a different Disney film honoring the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. So, two Disney features used the same song in an eight-month period in 2002/2003 after none had in the prior 35 years.

Pirates of the Caribbean is the crème de la crème of theme park tourism. It has name value that far exceeds regular attractions, even ones with sturdier reputations inside the industry. That’s because it was the first of its kind, a boat ride through several fictional pirate scenes, all of which earned Walt Disney’s personal seal of approval. More than any other attraction, this ride is his legacy, and its impeccable design quality speaks to the work ethic and vision of the man who built the Happiest Place on Earth.

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