Yo Ho, Yo Ho! A pirates ride for ye at Disney

One of the all-time Magic Kingdom Favorites almost never came to Florida

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BAY LAKE, Fla. – Fifty-four years after debuting at Disneyland, thousands of guests eagerly line up each day for a swashbuckling cruise with the Pirates of the Caribbean, not just in California and Florida, but Tokyo, Paris, -- and a radical re-imagining in Shanghai.

Given years of hype on Walt’s Sunday night TV Show, I’m sure guests were eager to hop in line on the Magic Kingdom’s opening day. Too bad they couldn’t. Imagineers and management initially thought Central Florida was too close to the real pirate locales to be of much interest to guests east of the Mississippi, the primary target audience for the new theme park. After all, pirate lore is fabled from New Orleans to St, Augustine, down to the Keys and then you reach the actual Caribbean Sea. Tampa’s annual Gasparilla “invasion” parade and festival had been a draw since 1904, just 70 miles southwest of the Magic Kingdom. Why not build something new and bold for what was billed as “A whole new Disney World?”

Marc Davis concept art for the "begging prisoners" scene of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Disney)
Prisoners try to beg a dog to let them out of their jail cell with flames just outside the bars. (Disney)

The logic made some sense, but not to the public. According to the official Disney version of events, demand was so great and vocal from day one that Pirates was rushed into design and construction and opened as the first phase two addition in December of 1973 (Phase one wrapped up with the debuts of “If You Had Wings” in June of 1972 and “Tom Sawyer Island” in May of 1973).

Walt Disney World's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" under construction in 1972 (Disney)

Now, I grant the Disney of the early 1970s built and opened attractions much faster back then, and much of the ride’s interiors and figures already had blueprints and molds, but to start from scratch on designing and building not only the ride, its queue building, and an entirely new mini-land called Caribbean Plaza in less than two years is quite an impressive achievement, if true.

Caribbean Plaza shortly after opening in 1973 in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. The area links Adventureland with Frontierland in what was once a dead end (Disney)

Caribbean Plaza was one of the loveliest and most detailed areas of the Magic Kingdom when it debuted, and still retains much of that charm, despite additions and subtractions over the decades. It also completes the “loop” around the park. Originally, Frontierland just dead-ended at the original train station, a little past where Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe is today. Adventureland ended with The Sunshine Pavilion and the Enchanted Tiki Room. Caribbean Plaza merges them masterfully, taking pressure off a small passageway right near the exit to the Tiki Room and entrance to Country Bear Jamboree.

Flame Effects in the burning town scene of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Disney)

The ride itself has a remarkable 120 Audio‐Animatronics performers and moving props, authentically detailed sets and special effects so clever, when California’s version opened, fire inspectors insisted on a stop button so fire crews could tell the real fire from the fake in an emergency.

a version of “small world” opened with the park in 1971. (Disney)

Much as she did on It’s a Small World and others, Disney legend Alice Davis crafted a legion of costumes for the large cast that marry period-correct details with a flair for the dramatic to help them all read better in a dimly-lit ride. Her husband, Disney legend Marc Davis sketched out most of the characters and humor, though the skills of more Disney legends: special effects wizard Yale Gracy, set designer Claude Coats, and Xavier “X” Atencio, who wrote the script for the ride contributed mightily to the attraction’s success.

Walt Disney examines detailed models for "Pirates of the Caribbean" ca. 1965 (Disney)

Pirates was the final attraction worked on from start until finish by Walt Disney himself. He passed away about three months before its Disneyland debut. Atencio had never written a script before. much less one with 100+ characters. In “The Imagineering Story” that debuted on Disney+ in 2020, former head of Imagineering Marty Sklar said, “There’s a boat every few seconds coming through here, so the story has to be continuous. X got very nervous, and he thought he’d written too much narration, and Walt said, ‘No, think of it this way. It’s like a big cocktail party. You hear bits of dialogue, hear stories over here. This is even better, because people can come back and go through it again and they’ll see something new and they’ll hear something new.’”

Imagineer and Disney Legend X. Atencio (© 2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. )

Dialogue wasn’t the only first Atencio faced head-on, saying, “When we finished the script, I came up with a lyric. There’s no concentration or how am I going to do this. So just it just happens. Knowing the Disney philosophy has just become second nature to me.” That lyric led to the famed theme song Yo Ho (A Pirates Life For Me), penned by Atencio and the composer of the song and ride score, George Bruns. Their work was so successful that Atencio performed the same script and song duties on the next true classic Disney attraction: The Haunted Mansion.

Walt Disney inspects figures for "Pirates of the Caribbean" in 1966 (Disney)

While Walt Disney never got to hop aboard one of the bateaux boats at Disneyland, he was pushed through a mock-up of all the sets and figures on a chair rigged to a dolly that moved at the same speed and gave it his blessing, along with notes for improvements. You can thank It’s a Small World for those boats. The ride system proved so efficient at the New York World’s Fair, the original version of Pirates was scrapped. It was to be a walk-through, like The Swiss Family Treehouse.

Loading area of Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Change is part of the history of all Disney attractions, even if guests don’t notice a lot of the tweaks that have been made. The tweaks to Pirates started with its Florida debut in 1973. While some call it a Cliff’s Notes version of the much-longer original, Marc Davis was generally pleased with the changes. He designed a new scene of “Ole Bill” the pirate, trying to share rum with a group of alley cats for Florida. It was quickly duplicated and added to California.

Marc Davis concept art for the "Ole Bill & Cats" vignette designed for Walt Disney World's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Disney)

In the 1990s, the first wave of major changes in tone came to both U.S. versions: two pirates on turntables were no longer chasing women, they were after trays of food added to the ladies’ hands, and are now running with treasure. The third turntable originally a village woman chasing a pirate with a broom, now she’s sporting a rolling pin. Also in the 90s, A “Pooped Pirate” originally tired from searching for a young lady hiding in a barrel was renamed the “Gluttonous Pirate,” again craving food. over anything unsavory. The woman hiding in the barrel was replaced by a cat. Today, he has a treasure map, and Captain Jack Sparrow is in the barrel trying to grab it.

A scared village woman once hid inside a barrel in a scene from Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean (Disney)
Captain Jack Sparrow replaced a scared villager hiding in a barrel inside Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean (Disney)

Speaking of the changes, late in life Atencio told Disney’s official fan website D23.com: “I liked adding Jack. The pirates chasing the gals… nobody asked me but my reaction was this is Pirates of the Caribbean not Boy Scouts of the Caribbean!” But more changes in tone have been made to keep up with modern tastes. Most recently, in 2018, the auction scene received a big makeover. The pirates are no longer auctioning off captured women from the town as “brides.” Instead, they are now auctioning off belongings. Instead of the famous cry “We wants the Red Head” -- they are now seeking rum. The Red Head herself approves. She is no longer a captured maiden but a bold pirate named Redd who urges the auctioneer to giver the pirates what they want, much as Imagineers are trying to give modern audiences what they want -- or even demand.

Installing "the Red Head" in Disneyland's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" in 1966 (Disney)
Concept art of transformation of the auction scene for Walt Disney World's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (©2017 Disney)

The biggest changes came in 2006, thanks to the success of the blockbuster movies inspired by the Attraction. The unnamed pirate ship captain bombarding the fort was replaced by Captain Barbossa seeking Captain Jack Sparrow. As I mentioned earlier, Jack Sparrow is now seen dodging other pirates until the end of the ride where it appears he has struck it rich. The treasure scene finale was originally designed for Florida, but featured guards tied up instead of Sparrow’s celebration.

Concept for the addition of Captain Barbossa to Walt Disney World's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Disney)
Installing the Treasure Room scene designed for Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean in 1973 (Disney)

Where Florida’s version really innovates is the ride queue. Even before entering the line, gunshots and other noises rang out from the top of the entrance building, a Spanish fort called “Castillo Del Moro.” For the first time in Disney history, the line was not just a series of switchback poles and chains, it took guests inside the Castillo, winding through two different paths through the cannons, armories, jail cells and the like. Originally, the voices of the soldiers getting ready for the invasion could be heard, along with spooky echoes and the attraction’s musical score -- all setting the mood long before you hop in the boat to “escape” before the pirates arrive. Nowadays, almost every major attraction at Disney and Universal uses this technique -- from Tower of Terror to Velocicoaster -- but the Magic Kingdom’s Pirates did it first.

The exterior of Walt Disney World's version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" set a new standard for themed queues. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

The queue is also home to a famous site gag by Marc Davis featuring two chess-playing skeleton prisoners in an eternal state of check-mate. Davis meticulously planned that game board, consulting with chess pros to find the perfect positions. Unfortunately, the pieces were knocked during a minor refurbishment and for several years, no one knew how to put them back until someone found a hand-drawn diagram by Davis. These days it is normally correct, but some cast members have been known to rearrange them as a prank.

Game over in the Pirates of the Caribbean queue. (Photo credit: Haley Coomes) (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Davis was a true pro through all of this, even though Florida’s version of Pirates marked the beginning of the end of his dream project. In concept art and early postcards, you can sometime see what looks like a large flat-top mountain in the distance of Frontierland. That was to be called Thunder Mesa - featuring walking trails and a ride Davis designed to top pirates in scope and ambition: The Western River Expedition. Even once Pirates was approved for construction, Davis was told his new elaborate ride though frontier scenes of cowboys, Indians, settlers, and even singing cattle was just pushed back.

Concept art for the never-built Thunder Mesa complex intended for The Magic Kingdom Ca. 1968 (Disney)

The plummet in tourism from the oil embargo in the mid-1970s and then the focus on building EPCOT Center killed the multi-acre Thunder Mesa and the Expedition. Two parts of the plan live on: the buffalo seen in Epcot’s “Living With the Land” boat ride were built for Western River. More memorably, what was once to be a minor third attraction for that area, a diving mine train ride was reimagined, upgraded to an E-ticket headliner and a much needed way to lure thrill seekers away from Space Mountain. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened on November 15, 1980 and has been a top draw ever since. Splash Mountain was added next door in 1992. Take the land for those two massive attractions together, and you get some sense of the scope of the Thunder Mesa project.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened Nov. 15, 1980 in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom (Disney)
Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!


About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.