3. Intellectual properties vs. original stories
This was a hot topic in our recent Theme Park Tourist staff roundtable. We’ve talked at length about Disney’s strong trend towards basing new attractions on popular intellectual properties rather than original stories. There is no doubt that IP’s have been part of Disney’s DNA from the beginning—Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, and Peter Pan are great examples. The issue that frustrates some fans isn’t Disney emphasizing their beloved characters and films: it’s the elimination of original stories entirely from their attraction lineup.
It’s easy to forget that Pirates of the Caribbean started as an original story attraction. Indeed, no one expected the film series based on the ride to be as popular as it turned out to be. The Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Spaceship Earth, Expedition: Everest, and Soarin’ are all based on original tales from the minds of Disney Imagineers. The last major attraction to open based on a purely original story idea was Mission: SPACE in 2003. Since then, Disney has leaned full tilt into gearing all new park developments to pair with major IP’s. Even Illuminations is supposedly being replaced with a new IP-centered show.
Those who agree with the change usually emphasize that IP’s are more recognizable. Disney wants to put forward their most marketable characters and stories as much as possible, and there’s no doubt that this strategy has led to success—consider how Frozen Ever After has drawn crowds in droves to Epcot’s once-quiet Norway pavilion. Longtime fans might hate that change, but its certainly to Disney’s benefit. Emphasizing IP’s also appeals to Disney purists who prefer Disney to emphasize their classic materials rather than giving so much attention to properties like Star Wars and Avatar which feel less “Disney”.
The problem is this: imagination is a cornerstone of the magic of Disney parks. One of the biggest appeals of Disney’s original story attractions is that we don’t know the beginning, middle, and end of those stories—there are gaps to be filled in by guest imaginations. Our perception isn’t colored by already knowing the story of The Little Mermaid, Frozen, or Toy Story. Original stories keep Disney fresh, eclectic, timeless, and they spur the imaginations of kids and adults alike. They take us on new adventures beyond those already familiar. IP’s may wane in popularity, but original stories can continuously bloom into something all their own. Also, who knows if one of those original stories might prove the seed that grows into the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? Food for thought, but both sides in this discussion have strong points.
4. Changes to classic rides
Disney’s greatest strength is the power of nostalgia. It is hard not to grow attached to classic attractions we remember from childhood. However, time changes everything, including Disney attractions—sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. Whenever these changes take place, fans always have lots to say.
Disney certainly has had their share of wins with attraction changes. While the older version of Test Track was zany fun, the Create-a-Car element of the newer version (TRON Track?) worked out swimmingly. Star Tours: The Adventure Continues turned out to be a great upgrade over the original thanks to its randomized elements. On the other hand, Disney has outright goofed with some ride changes and spurred full fan outrage: think The Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management or Journey into YOUR Imagination.
Perhaps no ride has been subject to this phenomenon more than Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates might be a classic attraction, but it’s been changed more times than most fans can even keep track of. In 1997, the ride was refurbished to adjust the dark tone of the pillaging scene (the pirates used to chase the women instead of the other way around) and to scrub the dialogue of the drunken sailor muttering about wanting to “Hoist his colors” for the wench auction. The ride was changed again in 2006 to add Captain Jack Sparrow and elements from the Pirates of the Caribbean films. In 2012, mermaids were added to the grotto scene, only to be removed in 2018. Most recently (and controversially), the wench auction scene was changed to transform the role of “The Redhead” into a pirate queen auctioneer instead of a wench for sale.
On one hand, guests who hate attraction changes are right that updates aren’t always needed. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Classic attractions are classic for a reason, and many fans prefer that Disney just leaves the content of these rides alone. The Pirates of the Caribbean changes also proved particularly frustrating for fans who felt the changes panged of Disney trying to be overly politically correct, missing the whole point that pirates were scallywags of low moral fiber in the first place.
On the other hand, attractions must evolve with the times—not only in terms of technology and content, but in terms of culture. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the changes over the years have actually reflected important shifts in cultural attitudes regarding the objectification of women and downplaying issues like human trafficking. For many guests, the wench auction was no longer fun theme park fare in a world where these issues are serious problems being highlighted more and more. The question is should a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean focus more on emphasizing the realities of a pirate’s life—pillaging and all-- or run with a more whimsical picture like we see in the films? It seems that in the end, Disney decided to place their bets in the latter direction, and many fans are okay with that. Either way, classic ride updates almost always court controversy.