The History of Pirates of the Caribbean (Part 1)

Today marks the 52nd anniversary of one of the most iconic attractions in Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean. This is an over sixteen-minute dark-ride, in a boat, through a gallery of animatronic pirates. This was the largest Audio-Animatronic attraction ever created and still ranks among the largest today. It was set in the 1800s in the West Indies. The attraction seems to be expressing the message that piracy, though initially attractive, will ultimately bring about one’s downfall (although as initially conceived and executed, the attraction was more purely a trip through scenes of violence and adventure, without any particular moral message). The 2003 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and subsequent films, were very loosely based on this attraction.

  • Above the entrance, there is an American flag with only 30 stars on it, which would indicate the setting to be 1848-1851.
  • This attraction is actually three stories tall. The loading area is on the equivalent of the third floor. Below that is the actual attraction itself and offices.
  • The attraction can handle 3,400 guests per hour.
  • The entire boat flume measures 1,838 feet long.
  • The boats float in a flume containing 750,000 gallons of water.
  • The combination of both drops is 52 feet long at a 21-degree angle; the Splash Mountain drop is 52.5 feet at a 47-degree angle.
  • When the boat slides down the drop, it is only going down 14 feet into the ground.
  • The second floor at The Blue Bayou looks like a facade to complete the appearance of an outdoor patio. Actually, it is part of Club 33.
  • When it first opened, this attraction had a total of 64 animatronic humans including pirates, enemies, and townspeople. There are also 55 animatronic animals. These numbers have varied over time as animals and people have been taken out or added in.
  • The whole attraction footprint covers 112,826 square feet within the two show buildings.
  • The Pirates attraction cost $8 million. That totaled more than 50% of the whole $15 million budget of the whole New Orleans Square project.
  • This attraction inspired the highest-grossing, live-action film franchise in Disney’s history taking in $4.53 billion worldwide. The film series includes five movies currently released.
  • Imagineer Herb Ryman was working on concept sketches for the park in 1954 and came up with a land called True-Life Land, which was named for Disney’s True-Life Adventures (1948-1960) series. It was going to be modeled after New Orleans, but with a pirate theme. There was to be a shipwreck with overflowing treasure chests, a store/restaurant called Pieces of Eight, and a store/restaurant called Blue Beards Den. This was to all be added onto Frontierland. This concept all predates Disneyland but shows that Walt had an interest in adding pirates to his park. Walt’s dream of a completely themed pirates land wouldn’t be realized until the construction of Treasure Cove in Shanghai Disney, which opened June 16, 2016.
  • Walt inadvertently named the attraction in 1961 when he said he wanted it to show pirates of the Caribbean. The name stayed.
  • Construction for New Orleans Square and Pirates began in 1961, after seven years of on-again, off-again design, and development.
  • They had originally intended for this to be a wax museum, and then later changed it to Audio-Animatronics.
  • Originally, the attraction was going to be called The Rogues’ Gallery but was later changed to the Pirate Wax Museum.
  • The basement of the Blue Bayou, then called the Blue Bayou Mart, was going to house the wax museum.
  • The production of the wax museum halted, along with Haunted Mansion, to work on attractions for the World’s Fair in 1964. The creation of the Abraham Lincoln Audio-Animatronic figure led to the upgrade from wax to fully-functional pirates.
  • The creation of the attraction was a culmination of creativity and ingenuity from a multitude of multifaceted Imagineers. They had diverse talents with multiple backgrounds to bring to the project to life, including Marc Davis, Herb Ryman, Dorthea Redmond, Claude Coats, Bill Justice, Yale Gracey, Dick Irvine, Blaine Gibson, Alice Davis, Wathel Rogers, and X Atencio.
  • Wathel Rogers became the lead Audio-Animatronic programmer at WED, which earned him the unofficial title of “Mister Audio-Animatronic.�?
  • Marc Davis took his pirate design inspirations from author and artist Howard Pyle. More specifically, his final work Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, published in 1921. We see and design pirates today because of Howard’s artistic outlook of them. Howard published a total of 24 books in his short lifetime, some of which were tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood.
  • Marc Davis came up with a copious amount of ideas for scenes with the pirates. Only a small portion was actually used in the final attraction. Once the decision was made to make the pirates move, it freed up Marc to create gags that required movement. But the new ideas were fewer due to the cost of making the new design of pirates.
  • This was a new concept for the Imagineers to create an attraction without a storyline. The attraction would just consist of scenes showing what it was like to be a pirate. The characters do not even repeat. There is no beginning and no end to a story. What happened to the city after the fire? We would never find out.
  • Imagineer Claude Coats was in charge of the set design and layout in which Marc would place his comedic scenes.
  • Walt brought in sketch animator Xavier Atencio to make him an Imagineer for the writing of the script. Xavier had never done a script before. To get a feel for the pirate jargon, he watched Treasure Island (1950), Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940), Captain Kidd (1945), Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), and The Buccaneer (1958).
  • The first scene X Atencio wrote was the Auction Scene. He used the dialogue to soften the scene of auctioning off women. They also created a big banner that said, “Auction – Take a Wench for a Bride�? to imply the pirates were purchasing for marriage. He showed the dialogue to Walt and he loved it, so X went on to write the rest of the attraction.
  • Atencio was inspired to write the song from the phrase “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.�? He told Walt that there needed to be a song that would show cohesiveness within the attraction.
  • Like its equally great counterpart, Haunted Mansion, this attraction’s creation also went on a hiatus while the Imagineers directed their attention to the World’s Fair projects. It is a good thing too because, like Haunted Mansion, this too was to be a walk-through attraction. Thanks to the expediency of it’s a small world’s ability to traverse 3,000 guests per hour, Imagineers visited the idea of making Pirates a boat ride.
  • This attraction was originally planned to be a walk-through attraction. Then again, so was it’s a small world. And, like it’s a small world, Walt decided to go with the whole boat idea, convinced that no one would want to walk through an attraction. They actually used the same flat bottom boats on Pirates as they did in small world.
  • At the time, the basement for the attraction had been partially constructed with steel and girders. The area was going to be too small for Walt’s idea. He decided to tunnel under the train tracks. It was a huge waste of money to rip it all out and start over, but Walt knew what he was doing.
  • The show building, which houses a large section of the attraction outside the berm, displaced what they called Holiday Land. It was more of a pick-nic area for corporate events. Right where the building sits used to be a baseball diamond.
  • After you go down the drop past the little beach and see the skeleton scene with the lightning, the chess-playing skeletons, the captain’s quarters, and the treasure room, you actually leave the park. The transition tunnel takes you under the train tracks. All those scenes I just listed were crammed into the area that was to house all of the original Pirates Wax Museum. After you pass the last of the burning buildings, you go back under the train tracks.
  • In 1965, just after returning from the World’s Fair, MAPO was founded. MAPO was founded with the profits made from Mary Poppins (1964) and was called Manufacturing and Production Organization. They were responsible for the production and creation of all the prototype and finished products of the Audio-Animatronics. After the attraction’s opening, there was a souvenir magazine sold in the park that credited MAPO with the prototype research, testing, development, and fabrication of the Audio-Animatronics characters and systems.
  • Imagineering had the ability to program the Audio-Animatronics to do so much more than they ended up doing. They kept it simple on purpose, mostly because of the forced simplicity and elegance of programming Mr. Lincoln.
  • Each animatronic character is programmed with movements. One figure can be programmed with up to 37 different movements, including the moving of fingers, bending of elbows, blinking of eyes, moving of mouths, etc. The average pirate/villager was programmed with 7-8 movements. Some only had 3-4 movements. When the attraction first opened, there were only 12 characters that had more than 10 movements. One was the captain at the well dunking Carlos with 14 movements, and the auctioneer pirate with 25 motions. Of course, this has all changed with the progression of technology since 1967.
  • The glistening of Carlos is caused by mineral oil on his face and clothes.
  • Because of the cost-cutting by Disney with “face sharing,�? the face of the auctioneer pirate has the same face as the dueling ghost on the left in Haunted Mansion and the same face as the sea captain ghost coming through the wall in Haunted Mansion’s ballroom scene.
  • Yale Gracey made the moving cloud effects for the World’s Fair in the General Electric-sponsored attraction Skydome Spectacular. It was so believable, that Yale was able to implement its use in the Pirates attraction to further convince riders that they are actually outside at night time.
  • Harriet Burns had said that Yale originally made the fire effect with an old hubcap that he had found and crinkly Mylar.
  • The fire sequence was so convincing that Anaheim Fire Chief Edward Stringer was going to shut the ride down. After he was shown how the effects worked, he ordered that the effects shut off in the case of a real fire so as not to mislead the firefighters.
  • In Marc’s original concepts for the wax museum, he had a burning city. Walt still wanted to keep the burning seaport. Claude Coats saw Yale’s fire effect and was impressed with it so much that he was able to design an entire scene surrounding that one effect.
  • Walt asked Alice Davis to come in and design the wardrobe for the pirates. She last worked on the “it’s a small world�? attraction for the World’s Fair. She had said, “I went from sweet little children to dirty old men overnight.�? The pirates were a challenge for her because they did not move like people in order to put clothing on. She used a lot of Velcro so that the clothing could be taken off and replaced quickly. She also learned from her small world experience that the fabric wears down in certain areas from constant rubbing, and leaking hydraulic fluid and oil is also a problem.
  • It took Alice and a team of four seamstresses less than one year to create the sewing patterns and wardrobe for all of the pirates.
  • Alice said that they needed a backup wardrobe for each of the pirates. The Accounting Department would not approve the extra spending. To get what she wanted, Alice had given projection costs of double what it actually cost so that she could make two of each costume. This foresight was a miracle as there was a fire in the Burning Town scene just about two months after opening. The fire destroyed three costumes, and several more were damaged by the emergency sprinkler system. Dick Irvine called up Alice in a panic and asked how quickly she could make another set of the costumes. She said she could change them out overnight.
  • The Imagineers created a mock-up of the Auction scene in the Glendale studio. They could not create a mock-up of the whole attraction as they did with the “dark rides�? because of the massive scale. For this moment, the Pirates of the Caribbean was actually a walk-through.
  • Before everything was built in the location it is in today, a mock-up had to be built to get the feel of the attraction concept. Dick Irvine was in charge of the project as the design director. He delegated out tasks to the individual Imagineers to do a full-scale re-creation of the Auction Scene as created by concept artist Marc Davis. Claude Coats was in charge of scenic design, Blane Gibson sculpted the characters, Yale Gracey was the special effects artist, Alice Davis was the costume designer, Wathel Rogers, and Bill Justice were in charge of the animation of the Audio-Animatronic figures created by Roger Broggie, X Atencio wrote the dialogue and musical lyrics for the whole attraction, and John Hench created a wooden boat on wheels with wooden benches. This whole assignment was for one purpose, to get Walt’s approval. They pushed Walt seated in the boat through the Auction Scene at a predestinated pace of two feet per second. The results were that he loved it so much; he considered it his favorite attraction. Sadly, Walt never got to ride the completed attraction due to his death, four months before the grand opening.
  • X Atencio apologized for all of the sounds and dialogue coming from all directions. It seemed a bit much. Walt replied, “Don’t worry about it. It’s like a cocktail party. People come to cocktail parties and they tune in a conversation over here, then a conversation over there. Each time the Guests come through here, they’ll hear something completely different. That’ll bring them back time and again.�?
  • On November 2, Walt had x-rays that revealed a tumor in his left lung. Doctors gave Walt six months to two years to live. After a two-week stay in the hospital, he returned to WED to check up on the projects. Walt asked Roger Broggie how the Pirates attraction was doing. At this point, all of the animatronics had been sent to the show building in the park. He said the company was pressuring them for a Christmas opening. Walt asked if they were ready for it, and Roger said they still had a few more bugs to work out. Walt then decreed that it would not open until it was done right. This would be Walt’s final executive decision. A decision that would put off the opening of Pirates so that he would never see it open to the public. Walt had said before, “If you’re not ready, don’t open the curtain.�? This will go on to always be the Imagineers adage.
  • Walt visited the show building in Disneyland and went on a tour with Marc Davis and a few other Imagineers. The boats’ water channel was not filled yet and all the sets were frame worked, so they were able to walk through. The Auction Scene was set up with the Auctioneer moving about. This would be the last Walt ever saw of the attraction’s sets, because of his failing health and then eventually his death.
  • In addition, on what would be Walt’s last visit to the studio, he visited Marc Davis to look over the concept art for other attractions. Marc showed him sketches for the upcoming attraction The Country Bear Jamboree. Marc said that as long as he kept showing stuff to Walt, he would keep commenting and laughing with him.
  • Dick Irvine and John Hench then joined Walt and Marc to go over the mock-up for the Flight to the Moon attraction. He gave his input and suggestions as usual. They could tell there was something wrong with Walt. He looked tired and worn out on his first day back to the studio. At this point, only Walt’s immediate family knew how sick he was. He kept playing off his gaunt haggardly look by attributing it to an old polo injury. When he was leaving the office, the last thing Walt said to Marc was “Good-bye, Marc,�? which was odd because he always said, “see you later�? or “keep up the good work.�?
  • Walt put a lot of work into this attraction. It had the most elaborate use of Audio-Animatronic figures than any other attraction. Sadly, Walt passed away four months before the attraction began operation.
  • Pirates would not open to the public until four months after the passing of Walt.
  • The Blue Bayou restaurant was completed but was delayed because Pirates was not yet ready to open.
  • Not wanting to complete the attraction without Walt’s approval, Marc and Claude kept moving the parrot sitting next to the drunk pirate with the dangling leg. It did not seem right to continue on without Walt making the final decisions. In the end, they decided that they had to get it open and as Walt always said, “Go back and plus it later.�?
  • On opening day, there was a huge press event. Reporters from television programs and newspapers, photographers, and other VIPs were aboard the Sailing Ship Columbia. On their journey around the island with the crew, pirates who approached in a rowboat overtook them. They were led by the pirate captain, played by the Golden Horseshoe Saloon’s Wally Boag (also the voice of Jose in the Enchanted Tiki Room). They all had sword fights and tossed the old crew overboard into the river. They all celebrated with the reporters by drinking mead, dancing on the deck, and having a merry ol’ time. They then disembarked and led the way to the entrance of the long-awaited attraction, where the pirates had to battle with the soldiers guarding the doors. After the soldiers were taken down, the pirates rammed the door open and let everyone in.
  • The anchor of Jean Lafitte was once located closer to the entrance of the Sailing Ship Columbia in Frontierland. It was christened with a bottle of Mississippi River water by beautiful actress Dorothy Lamour just before the Pirates attraction was overtaken.

This concludes PART 1 of the Pirates of the Caribbean history. Check our website later for more Pirates of the Caribbean history and fun facts.

If you enjoyed this article, then you should get a copy of my book with over 3,700 fun facts in is about Disneyland and Disney Movies.

About the Author

Joshua Shaffer
I am a two time published author of Disneyland history and fun fact books. My second edition has over 3,700 fun facts in it about Disneyland and Disney movies. In my spare time, I work on my next book. I also design Disney Fantasy Pins. For a brief time, I was a co-host on the Magic Behind The Ears podcast. I am also the Public Relations Manager for Gina Rock, the longest flying Tinker Bell in Disneyland history. She flew across the skies for the nightly fireworks from 1983-2005. I had a booth at D23 in 2017 where I premiered my books 2nd edition. It was nicknamed "The Disney Bible" because it is 700 pages long. I basically stood from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm every day for 3 days straight just talking about Disney stuff. I love all things Disney. If you have any questions about Disneyland or Disney Movies feel free to contact me and I will try to answer all your questions. If you haven’t already picked up a copy of my book, you need to do so. [email protected]

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