When Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room opened at Disneyland in 1963, the birds sang words and the flowers crooned—quite literally. This now-iconic attraction—initially envisaged as a small addition to a dining experience—quickly grew in popularity and marked the first completed application of Audio-Animatronics® technology for Walt and his team of Imagineers.
So, what next? How to improve what had already been achieved and expand on the success of the Enchanted Tiki Room? Forever an advocate for progress, Walt considered how this new technology could be adapted for other attractions.
The idea of a pirate-themed ‘walk-through’— a wax museum of sorts— was considered but soon shelved. As Disney Legend Marty Sklar later explained, a walk-through story “can be fractured—some people see one thing and miss another, while others can have a different experience.”
While the idea of a pirate-orientated attraction remained appealing, it became clear that a walk-through would make it difficult to tell a sequenced story that all guests would understand. But inspiration struck in the form of the happiest cruise that ever sailed—thanks to the overwhelming success and popularity of “it’s a small world,” creating a water-based dark ride to house the Imagineers’ swashbuckling new creations made perfect sense.
Another plus-point was the high capacity of “it’s a small world”—each boat held a large number of guests, meaning the attraction was a ‘fast loader’. As Marty Sklar remembers, “the boat ride/water trough system… was especially effective, capable of handling over 3,000 guests per hour, compared to the 500 or fewer a walk-through might accommodate.”
Creating the Vision
Now it was time for the hard work to really begin, as the team started to move from idea to sketch—then to sculpture and finally to full-size Audio-Animatronics figures. Two Disney Legends developed the characters. Marc Davis was in charge of drawing out each pirate, and Blaine Gibson—described by Sklar as “one of the most important storytellers”—worked to turn Marc’s two-dimensional visions into small sculptures to give Walt and the team an idea of what the finished pirates would look like.
Walt himself explained the process, noting that the team made the sketches “to figure out the types and the characters” before creating the mini figures which served as the basis for the life-size Audio Animatronics figures. He “wanted the characters to be real people,” recalled Sklar.
Imagineers and Disney Legends Bill Justice and Wathel Rogers were tasked with programming the pirates, which was no mean feat. Bill described Walt’s Audio-Animatronics figures as “wonderful” and remembered his time spent programming the famous ‘auctioneer’ character— “the most sophisticated character in that show”—and the six-week efforts taken to complete the challenge.
Yo Ho, a Pirate’s Life for Me
On March 18, 1967, just three and a half months after Walt’s passing, Pirates of the Caribbean opened to the public at Disneyland. The atmosphere, music, and rich Disney history of the attraction has helped it remain one of the most loved and cherished pieces of Imagineering innovation, even 50 years on. Each Pirates attraction around the world has its own unique slant and charm, from Disneyland’s classic through to Shanghai Disneyland’s Battle for the Sunken Treasure. One thing is for sure, and that’s that Walt’s original vision for Pirates—one of trying new things and pushing the limits of what could be achieved—is still alive and well. As Walt said, “anything’s possible at Disneyland.”
Sophie Jo is a writer and long-time Disney fan from England. Find her tweeting @sophiejowrites or happy-crying over it's a small world.