Surprising History of the Pirates of the Caribbean Disneyland Attraction

Posted on Fri, 10/29/2010 - 12:00

Retired Imagineer Marty Sklar was gracious enough to field some questions from us about one of our favorite attractions at Disneyland, those scourge of the seven seas, Pirates of the Caribbean. Marty, as many of you know, worked at WED and Walt Disney Imagineering for over forty years. He enlisted a couple of good friends and fellow Imagineers, X. Atencio and Bob Gurr as well to help with the interview. X. was an Imagineer for over thirty years and wrote the beloved song, "Yo-Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)". Imagineer Bob Gurr began with WED in the 1950s and as he often says, "If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it."

What follows is an online interview with the three of them with a guest appearance from two other current day Imagineers as well. Pirates of the Caribbean was originally planned as a walk-in museum but better ideas were ahead for those lovable rascals. Enjoy!

The Evolution of Pirates of the Caribbean

Why did it change from being a walk-through museum to a ride?

Marty Sklar: It was the impact of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. Walt proved with water conveyances (it’s a small world), vehicles on a motorized track (Ford’s Magic Skyway) and a moving theatre (Carousel of Progress for GE) that he could handle huge numbers of people, and still tell an entertaining and effective story. A walk-through has limited capacity, and the story can be fractured—some people see one thing and miss another, while others can have a different experience. By the mid-60s, Disneyland’s Operations Division had amassed a body of knowledge second to none about moving people through an experience, and Imagineering’s show designers and technical experts had combined to create four of the hit shows at the World’s Fair—three of them with ride capacities of over 2,000 people per hour.

The boat ride/water trough system created for UNICEF’s it’s a small world was especially effective and capable of handling over 3,000 guests per hour, compared to the 500 or fewer a walk-through might accommodate. Walt knew immediately that a walk-through Pirates was limited in its hourly capacity, its ability to meet guest requirements and expectations, and its opportunity to tell a sequenced story that all guests would “get” at the same time.

The Pirates

Did you think of each pirate as an individual?

X. Atencio: No, it was more a kind of “society” – a group of bad men interpreted in different ways. (X. refers to the “society” as “Dead men tell no tales!”)

The Minds That Designed The Ride

Was there anything you were really excited about that didn’t get put into the ride? Why didn’t it?

X. Atencio and Marty Sklar: This one is hard to answer because most of the development work was done by Marc Davis (all the gags, “business” and individual scenes) and Claude Coats (the Imagineering master at laying out a ride attraction). Walt brought X into the project “late” to write the script, so the attraction was basically worked out between Marc and Claude (and Walt!) before he was assigned to write the narration.

Walt’s casting “magic” was at work here: Marc and Claude were very different personalities, but they both brought skills to Pirates based on years of experience at the Studio—Marc as one of the “Nine Old Men” of animation creating character and story, and Claude as one of the great background artists in animation. John Hench, Senior Vice-president of WED, also played a big role in art direction for the overall attraction.

Making The Pirates Real

What part was the most challenging?

X. Atencio: Keeping the story fun and entertaining. After all, these were not “Boy Scouts” we were dealing with; they were pirates – a bad bunch.

Marty Sklar: No doubt some of the broad animation Marc’s drawings depicted were modified as the pirates were developed as Audio-Animatronics® figures. Blaine Gibson’s sculpting work—first as study maquettes and then as full-size sculptures of each figure, human and animal, is one of the “classic” accomplishments in Disney park attraction history.

Walt wanted the pirates to be “real people”, and Blaine had to interpret Marc’s often cartoonish characters to accomplish Walt’s direction. Remember that these were the most advanced and “sophisticated” three-dimensional animated figures the Imagineers had built – much more complicated and “active” than the birds and flowers of the Enchanted Tiki Room, the cavemen, dinosaurs, or Carousel of Progress family, and even the Mr. Lincoln figure from the New York World’s Fair shows. And, of course, the simplicity of the children and animal figures of it’s a small world!

Bob Gurr: The most challenging engineering aspect was to design a building structure that must support incredibly heavy water loads on the main floor without leaking down onto the guests in the boats on the lower floor. Some very special design details had to be worked out to ensure not only earthquake safety with all the water weight above the lower guests but keep the structure virtually watertight over time. Most guests are unaware that hundreds of tons of water are right over their heads while passing thru the lower scenes.

Features of The Ride

What’s your favorite effect created for the attraction?

X. Atencio and Marty Sklar: The burning city. When the city of Anaheim fire department—who had to inspect and approve the whole facility—saw it they at first did not want to give their OK. “How will anyone tell if there’s a real fire!?”, they asked. That’s how “real” Yale Gracey’s burning city fire is!

Did you have any input on the addition of Capt. Jack Sparrow (to the ride)? What do you think of the addition?

X. Atencio: No, but when I visited the set when they were in production, they treated me royally. In fact, when I didn’t see Johnny Depp at first, they told me he wanted to be in full costume when he met me – and sure enough, he came out in all the Jack Sparrow splendor!

X. Atencio & Marty Sklar: We both feel the addition of Captain Jack Sparrow (and other features from the film) to the park attraction was done beautifully—from a story standpoint they fit beautifully. And the Jack Sparrow figures were done with such great skill and care—costuming, animation, etc.—that they definitely add to the fun of the adventure. After all, even though the park attractions started it all, more people around the world today know Pirates of the Caribbean as a movie. It’s kind of contemporizing the show without modernizing it or changing the story—Jack Sparrow is no Boy Scout either!

Adding Jack Sparrow to the ride was a way to add more special effects and excitement to the experience, while also respecting the history of the Pirates of the Caribbean Disneyland ride.

Incorporating The Movie Into The Ride

Eric Jacobson, Senior VP at Walt Disney Imagineering, and John Gritz, Principal Concept Designer at WDI Disneyland, also provided information on the installation of the newest show, incorporating the movie genre, as follows:

  • The chair Jack Sparrow sits in, at the start of the up ramp, is actually from the Disney Haunted Mansion movie.
  • The Pirates movie production team—and even the stars—gave Imagineers notes about what Jack Sparrow would (or would not) do. This informed several of the new scenes where he appears.
  • The classic cavern treasure scene was re-built from the ground up, adding some new “sub-plots” for guests to discover.
  • The sunken boat near the waterfall in the caverns is an actual prop from the movie; also the cannon near the hurricane scene, and the large cannon in the shadows that points at guests, in the approach to the arsenal.
  • Because there was some question whether the Imagineering team could use the Aztec coin design from the film, they created a special coin that, from a distance, looks the same but actually “may be” the head silhouette of a famous Mouse. There’s also a “sort of Aztec Goofy” on the flip side of the coin.
  • John Gritz calculates that, even though most of the coins in the re-done classic treasure scene are cast in the form of “tiles”, there are about 400,000 coins, if you counted them individually.

John Gritz: “When I was a kid and riding through Pirates, I always noticed an incongruous Greek lyre in the treasure scene, and imagined that the pirates must have been mystically pirating throughout an unimaginable length of time. When we re-did the scene, I found that prop crushed under some fallen scenery (it was gilt plywood with gems glued on). In honor of the memory and craft of the earlier Imagineers, I sculpted a new elaborate lyre with swan motifs to replace it, used the gems off the original, and then put it in an honored place in the show today.”

Stories From The Movie

What was your reaction to the several story homages from the ride that were part of the Pirates movie?

X. Atencio : Well, it's hard to top “Dead Men Tell No Tales”, so I was very pleased about that. And of course the dog in the jail scene; that was one of Marc’s gems, and a signature moment in the attraction and the film. You can tell the filmmakers had a healthy respect for the ride!

What type of “inside jokes” were built into the ride of Pirates of the Caribbean?

X. Atencio and Marty Sklar: None that we know about! Originally, there were no “hidden Mickey’s”, but there were probably some first names of Imagineers on props, like barrels and boxes, that no one would notice or pay attention to. And the Treasure Scene has always been full of so much “junk jewelry”, and even real antiques, that there’s really no accounting for the taste of what X. called “the society of bad guys” - the pirates.

Overcoming Challenges

What sort of technological difficulties did you have to overcome to create the attraction?

Bob Gurr: The big ride technological difficulty was to develop a chain lift system that would reliably transport the boats from the lower level back up to the main level using a chain lift running in water. Usually, these types of chains have oil lubrication which allows a long life. But somehow the Disney mechanical engineers, along with Arrow Development, evolved a non-lubricated chain lift design that has a good life and has turned out to be very reliable.

Another tricky design situation was to keep the boat splashing minimized at the bottom of the two water drops. A lot of testing and adjusting over time made this situation dependable. But each time the boats were changed or modified along with the boat guide system, additional final adjustments were required. This adds to the rich history of the Pirates of The Caribbean ride and shows how the engineers were able to adjust their plans.

Is it true that the ride’s boat trench had to be dug deeper because the rising weight of Americans was causing the boats to scrape the bottom (of the trough)?

Marty Sklar: No. This was the “rumor” being bandied about regarding the replacement of the ride trough in it’s a small world. The facts are that this trough was shipped back to California from its two years at the New York World’s Fair, and installed at Disneyland in 1966. It was a 40 year-old structure and water flow system that needed to be replaced for maintenance and efficiency reasons.

Our special thanks to Marty, X, Bob, Eric and John for this behind-the scenes look at Pirates of the Caribbean!

Visit Us and Learn More About Disney’s Amazing History 

Originally constructed in 1897 as an Army barracks, our iconic building transformed into The Walt Disney Family Museum more than a century later, and today houses some of the most interesting and fun museum exhibitions in the US. Explore the life story of the man behind the brand—Walt Disney. You’ll love the iconic Golden Gate Bridge views and our interactive exhibitions here in San Francisco. You can learn more about visiting us here.