The Evolution of Pirates of the Caribbean: From Walkthrough Attraction to a Blockbuster Film Franchise

These days, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the biggest franchises in the Walt Disney Company’s intellectual property roster.  There are Pirates attractions around the globe, and the film franchise has grossed well over $4 billion at the box office.  Certainly not bad for a concept that initially wasn’t even supposed to be a ride.


In the early 1960s, Walt Disney and his first generation of Imagineers had many ideas on how to expand the then-nascent Disneyland, one of  which was a wax museum dedicated to pirates that would eventually be placed in the Park’s under-construction New Orleans Square section.  In fact, a large “basement” was dug out of the land in preparation for the walkthrough.

However, the success of the It’s a Small World attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair led Disney to alter the Pirates plans to a boat ride instead. To facilitate this change, a show building which would contain most of the ride, was built outside of Disneyland’s Railroad while the original “basement” became a series of caverns that led to the real attraction. This interesting design led to the addition of flume drops to the ride’s track in order to move guests underneath the park’s railroad tracks.

Once Pirates transitioned into the form we know today, numerous legendary Imagineers worked on the attraction. These included Marc Davis, who added his trademark comedic touch to the buccaneers in scenes such as the infamous auction of the redhead, and Xavier Atencio and George Burns, who penned the ear worm theme song “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” All the while, Walt Disney was heavily involved in the attraction’s development and featured it heavily on episodes of his weekly television series. Sadly, it would be the final attraction that the founder was involved in, as Disney passed away in December 1966.

Disney artist X Atencio [The Walt Disney Company]

Just four months after Walt Disney’s death, Pirates of the Caribbean opened to great acclaim at Disneyland in March of 1967. The attraction wowed guests with over 100 animatronics, as well as the attached Blue Bayou restaurant. Pirates quickly became one of Disneyland’s most popular E-Ticket attractions, and along with the 1969 opening of the Haunted Mansion signaled that Disney’s parks would continue to innovate after Walt’s passing.

Given the attraction’s immediate popularity, it would be easy to assume that Pirates of the Caribbean would have been immediately pencilled in as an opening day attraction at the then-under-construction Walt Disney World. However, the company’s executives felt otherwise. Believing that Florida residents would be “bored” by pirates – since they’re already part of the state’s culture and lore – the decision was made to omit Pirates from the Magic Kingdom. This was fine by Marc Davis, who didn’t want to repeat himself. He instead set his sights higher, designing a magnum opus attraction known as the Western River Expedition that was meant to supplant Pirates at the top of the Disney pantheon. However, things didn’t go as planned for Davis or Disney.

The exterior of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Walt Disney World.

Upon the Magic Kingdom’s 1971 opening, scores of guests – many of whom had spent years hearing Walt Disney continuously plug the attraction on television – began complaining to Guest Relations about the lack of Pirates of the Caribbean in the park. Much to Davis’s chagrin, the company put Western River Expedition on hold – the first of many nails in the unbuilt attraction’s coffin, but that’s another story for another time – and fast-tracked a version of Pirates for Walt Disney World’s Adventurland, since the Magic Kingdom didn’t have a New Orleans Square. Despite being considerably shorter than its Disneyland counterpart, the Magic Kingdom version of Pirates was a massive hit upon its December 1973 opening, and it continues to thrill guests to this day.

When the Walt Disney company began internationally expanding its theme parks in the early 1980s, Pirates of the Caribbean went with them. Tokyo Disneyland featured Pirates as an opening day attraction in 1983, though like many early attractions in the park it was essentially a clone of the Disneyland version, with a few touches from Disney World’s thrown in for good measure.

On the other hand, the version opened in Disneyland Paris (then known as Euro Disney) in 1992 was somewhat  different. Designed by a team led by Imagineering legend Tony Baxter, the attraction maintained many of the classic scenes from the Disneyland original but sandwiched them between a larger siege of a fort and a much more explosive – and we mean that literally – conclusion.

Captain Jack Sparrow

While Pirates of the Caribbean was a major part of Disney’s parks, the franchise didn’t really enter the pop cultural zeitgeist until the 2003 release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The live action film became a surprise critical and commercial hit that summer, mainly due to Johnny Depp’s Keith Richard-inspired performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. The role earned Depp an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and helped launch the series that currently stands at five films as well as numerous video games, novelizations, and other tie-in media.

In 2006, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise came full circle when several story-elements and animatronics – including multiple Jack Sparrows – were added to the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of the attractions.

These additions, along with other changes including the elimination of the auction scene in favor of making the famed redhead a pirate, have divided longtime Disney fans.

Pirate Redd Scene

2016 saw the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland. Based entirely on the film series, the ride combines magnetic powered vehicles, a water flume, physical sets, and screens to create an immersive experience that has quickly become a favorite of Disney aficionados.

Pirates of the Caribbean has been a cornerstone of the Disney company for over 50 years now, and between the blockbuster film franchise and revolutionary ride in Shanghai, it doesn’t seem like dead men will begin telling tales anytime soon. Not bad for an attraction that began life as a wax museum in a basement.

What are your thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean? Do you have a favorite version or opinion on the changes made throughout the years? Let us know in the comments below.


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