Today, it’s hard to imagine Disneyland (or any of the Disney parks around the world for that matter) without Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s such a signature and timeless attraction that it seems like it must have always been there. In fact, the pirates didn’t hoist their sails until 11 years after the original Disney theme park opened. And they almost never set sail at all—at least not in the form that we now know and love, as you’ll discover in this brief history of Pirates of the Caribbean.
According to Marty Sklar, former vice chairman and principal creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, Walt had developed a walk-through pirates concept, and workers had already put in the steel for the modest attraction when the New York World’s Fair made him rethink his plans. The 1964-65 fair featured four Disney projects, including “it's a small world.“ The iconic attraction’s runaway success and ability to move enormous numbers of guests through the experience motivated Walt to incorporate a similar ride system for Pirates. Besides, the boats worked well with the theme, and they allowed the story to unfold in a more controlled and linear fashion.
Another World’s Fair attraction, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, moved audio-animatronics to another level. The president’s realism engaged and even startled audiences. Sklar says that Walt shot down Imagineers that wanted to create cartoon pirates and instead asked them to go for Lincoln’s more natural look. “Walt had a belief in animatronic characters. He said, ‘This is all about breathing life into these characters.’ “
The Fire Was a Little Too Realistic
It took a lot of Imagineers to breathe life into the Pirates. Once they completed the storyboards, the Disney team built miniature sets. Walt himself then cast and staged the animatronic performers by hiring 120 actors to serve as models. The Imagineers filmed the models acting out their scenes to use as a reference. They also took plaster casts of the models to design the animatronic characters.
Blaine Gibson, an artist and sculptor with a background in animation, was in charge of developing the characters. “He had a total understanding about animatronics,” Sklar says. “[Blaine] realized he only had a couple of seconds to communicate what a character is about. He made them slightly exaggerated. It’s that subtle presentation that makes the attraction work.” The lead designer for the attraction was Marc Davis, one of Walt Disney’s legendary “Nine Old Men.”
Sklar notes that he had a hand, albeit a small one, in designing Pirates. He worked with another noted Disney Imagineer, X. Atencio, in recording the narration. Atencio wrote the script, including the now-famous “Yo Ho” Pirates of the Caribbean song lyrics.
Special effects master Yale Gracey created the attraction’s fire scene. Sklar says that it was so realistic, the city of Anaheim didn’t want to approve it at first. “They were afraid people would panic,” he says with a laugh. “We had to convince them it wasn't real.”
Disney’s Masterful Use of Storytelling
When the concept for Pirates began to expand to ever-grander scales, Sklar says that Imagineers realized that the attraction was larger than any space available inside the park’s limited footprint. “Then, somebody figured out we could go outside of the berm if we put the attraction into a building and brought the boats to the building. The public doesn’t see what's going on inside the building.” (The Haunted Mansion uses a similar tactic.) “Pirates was the beginning of stretching Disneyland.”
And it was a stretch in other ways as well. With its elaborate sets, scores of costumes, the characters’ complicated mechanical movements, and other elements that contributed to the sheer scope of the attraction, Sklar says that Pirates “...took a huge leap of faith.”
It also raised the bar by a quantum leap and changed the very nature of the theme park experience. The attraction's story proved so potent, it led to the insanely popular film franchise featuring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. In turn, the sozzled captain and other characters from the movies have been incorporated (tastefully and with reverence to the original attraction we might add) into the ride.
There have been other modifications to the ride through the years. For instance, pirates used to chase women in an endless circle in one of the scenes, but the Imagineers later reversed the direction so that the women now chase the pirates. In 2018, the ride’s auction scene got a major update when Redd, one of the “wenches” that used to be featured on the auction block, was transformed into an empowered pirate. Now, she auctions rum that she has looted.
The Pirates’ story continues to unfold as new generations of fans set sail with the animatronic buccaneers. It’s every bit as relevant and popular today as when it opened in 1967. And that, me mateys, is a testament to Walt and his crew of Imagineers—all master tale-tellers—that built this incredible attraction.