Pirates of the Caribbean

Changing Times or PC Overreach?

Concept art for new auction scene in Pirates of the Caribbean ride

On first glance, the premise of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction might seem to be one of the most morally objectionable premises for a family-friendly attraction.  A group of pirates invade, loot, and burn to the ground a colonial Caribbean seaport. Along the way, they torture city officials, drink rum like there's no tomorrow, and drunkenly sing about the joys of piracy as the city burns around them.

You know, feel-good kiddie fare.

Despite this, the attraction has been beloved for over 50 years.  It has been built in nearly every Disney Park and inspired a string of blockbuster movies that let Johnny Depp let his broad characterizations run amok in a theater near you.

Clearly, the attraction has been a wild success, probably far beyond the highest expectation of it main founding father: one Walter Elias Disney.  Pirates was, in fact, the last park attraction personally supervised by the founder, though he did not  live to see its opening.

Generation after generation, the animated debauchery of pirate animatronic figures have entertained boatloads of children and their parents in the happiest place on earth.  A low-speed comfortable vehicle takes riders for a cool, relaxing ride, with the thrills provided by Caribbean "pirates," whose decidedly drunken and antisocial acts of questionable legality thrill and amuse—political correctness be damned.  

Until recently.  The tenor of our times has finally forced changes to the grandest of all pirate rides.

Oh wait, not quite. This is not the first time that the Caribbean has been affected by the winds of time.  We can see through time that the ride operators, the men and women of Disney, have always seen the Pirates attraction as not so historically correct that it couldn't be changed to meet the times.

The scene that is currently the focus of a ride revamp is the "bride auction" scene.  I'll describe that later, but first consider some of the other changes that the times have demanded—for reasons not just of political correctness, but also of  entertainment value, and yes modern marketing.

Indeed the "bride auction" scene wasn't even the first scene to get refreshed due to perceived misogyny. In the original ride in Disneyland  (in this article I focus mostly on the original Disneyland ride), one scene depicted pirates chasing the town maidens, using simple turntables to create the main action effect. In the center of the scene was an overweight male pirate sitting in front of a barrel holding what appeared to be a woman's undergarment. He addressed passing guests, saying that he "be looking for a lively lassie" with whom he would like to "hoist his colors."  "I be willing to share I be," he adds. In the barrel behind him, a terrified young woman's head would occasionally pop up, showing that she was clearly hiding from the pirate.

This bawdy scene stayed in place for the attraction's first 30 years, but a 1997 refurbishment to the Disneyland version changed the scene's premise. Change was achieved by putting food in the hands of the women on the turntables so that the male pirates were now hungry rather than lustful.  Further designers gave  the Pooped Pirate a chicken leg, which he now offered to share with guests. The woman in the barrel was replaced with a cat.

A year later, Walt Disney World changed its similar scene, albeit to a lesser degree. The women were now chasing the Pirates, who were given sacks of gold. The Pooped Pirate was given a treasure map and magnifying glass and asked guests where the x that marks the spot is. The woman remained in the barrel but was given a small treasure chest. 

Outside of a few additions here and there, this change was the only really major scene revision to the ride in the 20th century,  Inevitably, many Disney fans decried the changing of the chase scene, attributing it to "Political Correctness."  The original show writer of the attraction, X Atencio, himself complained that they were turning the ride into "Boy Scouts of the Caribbean."

From all appearances, this particular move seems to have been preemptive and driven internally; at this point, Disney was more politically correct than most of its audience—perhaps understandably given the behemoth the company had become and how much was on the line in its every move.  And really, the entertainment value of the ride wasn't significantly affected by this taming of the crew.

Bigger changes were to come, in 2003, when Disney released a film based on the attraction, albeit very loosely. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a major box office success. In some ways, this was an unexpected coups for Disney, as attempts to make movies of its other theme park rides (eg, Country Bear Jamboree, Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland) have been only marginally successful at best.

While the film spiked the popularity of the Pirates ride,  the general public also realized how loosely connected the film was to the ride, with many guests wondering why the film characters Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa did not make an appearance.  

With the immense success of the first Pirates film, it was not long before a sequel was announced.  As part of that publicity, Disney let it be known that its "Imagineers" would be adding some of the movie characters to the ride. 

In early 2006 the attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World closed for refurbishment, reopening early in summer along with the second movie.  While some additions were indeed quite seamless, the introduction of the movie characters significantly altered the ride experience. Where once there were only two voices in a dark tunnel warning guests about cursed treasure, now the villain of the second film Davy Jones appeared on a mist curtain contradicting the classic "Dead men tell no tales" warning with the addition "Ah but they do tell tales.  So says I Davy Jones." 

The original Captain of the Wicked Wench Pirate ship was replaced with the film's Hector Barbossa character, who makes his only appearance while music from the film blasts in the background of the formerly scoreless scene. The dialogue of the aforementioned "well" scene was altered to make reference to the fact that the pirates were looking for Captain Jack Sparrow in addition to the treasure they had previously been after.   

The first of three Jack Sparrow animatronics stands nearby in a formerly vacant spot hiding behind a dressmakers form. How seamlessly he fits in the scene is a matter of debate, with some saying that the hyper-realistic figure (it's a fully accurate depiction of Johnny Depp) looks out of place next to the heavily caricatured look of the other pirates and townspeople. 

The change also created logical absurdities in the script—or if you wanted to be more charitable, some indication that you don't quite have the whole story.  For example, why would the lawfully elected mayor of a Spanish colonial town be hiding a pirate from other pirates, let alone be willing to risk drowning for him? The new script also has the Pirates constantly referring  to "Captain Jack Sparrow," voiding a running gag in the film series, where the pirates don't give Jack the respect of his self-proclaimed "Captain" status.

Sparrow makes a second appearance  hiding in the barrel once occupied by the frightened young woman and the cat from the 1997 re-do. The eccentric Captain listens in while the Pooped  pirate, given a key and a treasure map in this update, spouts new dialogue bragging about how Captain Jack Sparrow would never find the treasure.  

The remainder of the ride, with tales of gangrene, arson, prison and various forms of mayhem,  was left pretty much as before—at least until the very end where a new scene of Jack Sparrow has him lounging in the town Treasure Room singing a mostly a capella "Yo Ho a Pirates' Life for Me,"  followed by the voice of Davy Jones exclaiming that "Dead Men Do Tell Tales, Don't They," seemingly  putting an exclamation point on the fact that the ride's original mantra has been consciously and officially contradicted.  

The ride would stay virtually the same for the next 11 years, when in July 2017 Disney announced that the "Bride Auction" scene would be undergoing a significant alteration.  The scene, in which the women of the town are sold to the Pirates and the Pirates heckle for the "Redhead" rather than a more heavyset woman, would be changed to a more generalized loot auction.  In the new scene the townspeople would be forced at gunpoint to sell their possessions to the pirates, with the redhead now a pirate herself.  Incidentally, the redhead's new status might been planned  all along, as evidence of her future is seen in a painting in the skeletal Crew's Quarters.  This painting, which appears early in the ride, has been part of the ride since its initial voyages in 1967.

The revised scene debuted in the Disneyland Paris version of the ride in July 2017, in Walt Disney World in March 2018 and finally in Disneyland on June 8, 2018.  Once again, derisive cries of political correctness were hurled by many outraged Disney fanatics. But this time there's no doubt that Disney was reacting to changing social feelings about women and their place in society.  Opponents of the move again went to the idea that Disney was messing with historical fact, again giving versions of real pirates who were now being depicted as boy scouts.

I understand both the arguments for and against this change. For one thing, as a Disney traditionalist my first impulse on almost any change is negative.  But I understand that Disney is in a tricky situation here.  While I see and enjoy the back story of the Pirates attraction, I realize that most riders correctly see it as a series of disconnected scenes about the life of a pirate.  Trying to force a real narrative on it wouldn't be at all the spirit of the ride's origins, even if they can make a movie that uses the name.

Also, even the most ardent supporter of the ride couldn't really make the argument that it is in any way a historical ride.  Disney intended the ride to take visitors on a great adventure, for entertainment value not as a history course. Certainly, it is not intended to give a moral lesson to the youth of America—it would still be failing at that no matter how many scenes were changed.

It would be presumptuous for me to make any assumption about what message the chase scene or the bride scene was sending to young girls.  But Disney no more has a responsibility to keep in scenes that create discomfort from a company standpoint than to step in for parents to sort through societal issues.   And again, these new scenes don't significantly affect the adventurous nature of the ride—in fact, in some ways the ride has become better than it's been in a long time.  However, that's mostly about two small changes made in concert with the bride auction alteration.

First, the original narration in the "time travel" cave in the ride has been restored, with the Davy Jones effect having been removed along with his opening dialog.  I see this opening as a better mood-setter than its movie-based replacement, though again I'm an admitted traditionalist. (Davy's end-of-ride voice-over  has survived the refurbishment by that way.)

Second, in the same "time travel" cave a new vignette was added, showing a pirate transforming from a skeleton to a flesh-and-blood pirate, providing a visual transition to let the rider know that he/she is traveling through time.  I found this effect to be seamless with the rest of the ride, and ultimately very effective.

In all, Pirates has been an amazingly consistent ride over its 50 plus years but has also shown the versatility to change with time.  It will take an awful lot of refurbishment to make these Pirates into modern role models, and just as many to derail an experience that is somehow exciting, adventurous, oddly calming, and visually stimulating all at the same time.

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