I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog praising Marc Davis. I’ve lauded his character design and taste in designing an attraction which few enjoy, Country Bear Jamboree. I’ve tried to bring attention to the sensitivity of tone in his 1971 Jungle Cruise. I’ve praised the original conception of the Haunted Mansion Attic scene – the one that didn’t work – as brilliant. So let’s step back for a moment and take a look at one time Marc designed something that didn’t really work.
Besides discussing the Haunted Mansion and rambling about music, maybe one of the key elements of this blog has been Pirates of the Caribbean. I’ve made the case for the excellence of this experience at Disneyland, and mounted an elaborate defense of the maligned Florida version of the attraction. I’ve even tried to make the case that Marc Davis truncated the Florida Pirates with some care – care not evident because Western River Expedition was never built.
In some ways this post is an outgrowth of “The Case For The Florida Pirates“, an essay now over a half decade old. Rather than force everyone back to read some old writing overstuffed with adjectives, I’m going to cover some of that old ground here and begin by looking at the unique narrative of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Florida.
The Florida Pirates: Narrative Structure
If you’ve read any of the official books on Pirates of the Caribbean, any official WDI-sourced literature, any of the blogs descending from these official sources, or even actually been trained at the attraction at Walt Disney World, you will have been told that Pirates of the Caribbean is a time travel story. Guests load boats in the present day, discover some dead pirates, drop down a waterfall, and travel back in time to see them sacking a town.
That is the official story. It’s also, unfortunately, almost 100% bullshit.
Mind you, this actually is correct – at Disneyland, and also Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. Paris probably gets the prize for being the most coherent of the lot – guests pass through a fort destroyed in a Pirate raid, blackened with gunpowder and stewn with skeletons. Once on the ride proper, the boats travel back in time and we see the raid which destroyed the fort – pirates scale the walls, fight soldiers, and blast open an aqueduct. Shortly, we discover that the chaos extends to the town nestled at the base of the fort, until the reverie ends as the boats float into a gunpowder store room that explodes. Winding through the caves at the foundations of the fort, we discover the skeletons of the doomed survivors, who spent the rest of their lives guarding their treasure. At one point we can see where the destroyed fortress queue and the caverns below connect.
It’s a very impressive experience, but by straightening out the chronology some of the power of the ride is dampened. Disneyland’s original masterpiece makes almost no sense taken on a scene by scene level, but has an amazing associative power that goes beyond logic. As the boats wend their way through the twisted swamp into the darkness, then through the caverns filled with bones, we sense rather than are told that the layers of reality are being stripped away. By the time the full scale Pirate raid appears, despite having been foreshadowed from literally the moment the facade of the attraction is seen, we are throughly in its thrall.
But the thing about the nearly perfect structure of the Disneyland version is that it was accidental. One could also say that it’s a mess. If you’ve ever had a personal project that came out amazingly well but not in any way that you intended it to, then you know what the design team of Pirates of the Caribbean was dealing with here. The natural inclination is to assume that it turned out well because your ideas preserved despite the rest of the project being a total disaster. If you were given the opportunity to do it over again, you would double down on your ideas and try to eliminate the things that gave you trouble, wouldn’t you?
|Early version that still ends with a fire!|
That’s what Marc Davis was doing in Florida. Here he was, given the opportunity to go back to the well and remove all of the extra stuff that was added to Pirates of the Caribbean because the scope of the project kept changing. No longer would the ride begin in New Orleans and wind its way to a Caribbean colony: we begin in the Caribbean town the pirates are going to attack. In one stroke that obliterates the location jumping and the time travel.
So why do we get into the boats and where do we go? By moving up the start of the pirate raid so it begins while patrons are waiting in line, we motivate the boats as escape vessels and add a sense of menace and urgency to the start of the ride. In Disneyland I guess we assume that we’re loading onto boats to go on a tour of the Louisiana bayous or something, and make a few wrong turns before being sent back in time. The new plan means that the facade and queue can be devoted to setting up the idea that “the pirates are coming” rather than springing it on audiences halfway through the ride.
Why are the pirates coming? Well, we’ve already got all of the X Atencio dialogue establishing that they’re after the treasure, because what else do Pirates do? At Disneyland they never find that treasure – a casualty of the fact that Marc Davis was pretty much just drawing random stuff under Walt’s direction and then X Atencio would show up and try to make sense of it. So we add a new scene at the end where the Pirates have found the treasure. There. The entire thing is streamlined. We are in a caribbean village, the pirates attack, they spread chaos while looking for the treasure, they find the treasure and the ride ends.
Okay, so what about those skeletons at the start of the ride?
If you go back and read “The Case For the Florida Pirates”, I pretty much just throw my hands up the air at this point. “It’s a problem!” I shout. I’ve got something new to say about that, and we’ll get back to it in a minute.
The Destroyed Fort
All of this narrative information, to have any effect whatever, needs to be set up properly in the queue. The facade and queue for Pirates in Florida really is a masterpiece, albeit one that’s almost impossible to perceive now. WDI has done so much futzing with the start of the ride to bring it into line with the time travel story set up at Disneyland that they’ve destroyed what made it great to begin with, which has a negative effect on our comprehension of the attraction further down the line
It began with tiny things, but tiny things were always placed there by WED for good reason. Originally, the cannons along the roof of the facade would fire. You could hear this through a lot of Adventureland, and it was like a beaconing hand: “Come on in here! Don’t you want to find out what’s here?”. But more importantly, it was a setup so we understood that this was a fort under attack.
Once inside the fort, a short entrance tunnel played a menacing version of the “Yo Ho” theme, but then the music went silent. It needed to, because then we heard the soldiers preparing for the pirate attack. A captain of the guard could be heard ordering the preparations for firing on the pirate ship, and occasionally blasts of cannon fire could be heard. This, combined with the occasional refrain of “Yo-Ho” echoing through the halls, was absolutely essential narrative information that also created the eerie impression that the pirates could be around any corner.
From there, the queues diverged through different areas of the fort, coming back together at Pirate’s Cove, a secret rear escape route. Through openings in the cave walls, a distant pirate ship can be seen in the harbor. After a trip through the unexplored caves in the hills behind the fort, boats splash down in the bay, and the pirate ship has begun its attack.
Starting in the late 90s the cannons on the facade were heard less and less often as they went long stretches without being repaired. They were fixed in 2005 shortly before the attraction closed for its big movie overlay refurbishment, but when the show returned in July 2006 the rooftop cannons were silent. They had been muted at the request of Entertainment because they were considered invasive for the “Pirate Tutorial” show happening outside; as of 2016 they are only activated for an effect in one of the Adventureland interactive games.
Also in 2006, the entire queue was refurbished. The dialogue establishing that the pirates are attacking was not removed, but it was drowned out by new music played through the entire queue rather than just the entry area. Worse, instead of the menacing atmospheric music installed by WED in 1973, the music was now the mellow, atmospheric “Overture” played in Disneyland’s entrance area. Given the eerie, darkened surroundings, the peaceful flute and rhythmic drums are, and remain, entirely incorrect.
In 2012, as part of the disastrous MyMagic+ program at Walt Disney World, the Pirates queue was again refurbished. This time Fastpass was added to the attraction, requiring a new merge point be created. Worse, the Fastpass side of the queue was cut through a wall near the entrance, removing one of the queue’s finest features: the walk up the entrance ramp, then the slow slope down towards the dungeons. Thanks to an original design which did not take into account the very real modern need for wheelchair accessibility, the side of the queue intended by WED to be seen by most guests – the right-side dungeon side with the “chess” and “cave” show scenes – can now only be enjoyed by those with Fastpass.
|This is just gone now.|
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that absolutely everybody understood the setup of the pirate attack in the same easy, clear way that everybody understands the trapped safari at Jungle Cruise: it’s a more complex idea. but by removing, bit by bit, the indications that we are entering a Spanish fortress under attack, WDI has, either intentionally or not, made it possible to read the FL ride as a time travel story. And after all why would it not be a time travel story, with every other version being the same way? After all, two other versions of the ride begin with a trip past pirate skeletons and ghosts, setting up the time travel to come. What’s the deal with the skeletons at the start?
But given that all of the circa 1973 evidence points us towards an unbroken series of logical events with no timeslip, really WDI should have considered what the significance of the eerie ship out to sea in the distance. Or the pirates heard digging in the cave by the loading area. Or maybe not, since these are two of Marc’s finest touches in this ride, and losing them to force the ride to conform to their interpretation of it would be tragic.
Those Darn Skeletons
So really you’ve got two competing intereptations of the Florida Pirates, both of which appear to fail to explain specific and unavoidable design features of the ride: there’s the WDI “timeslip” version, and there’s my version, which I believe reflects what WED intended back in 1973.
WDI’s version fails to account for the narrative setup in the queue and for the pirate ship seen in the “moonlight bay” tableau. My version has no good explanation for the pirate skeletons seen at the start.
Well, hold on.
Let’s go back for a moment here and look again at the final ride. Ultimately, none of the “did you knows” and “fun facts” in the world matter beyond what can be gleaned by simply and purely just looking at the ride. And my mind returns again and again to that cave seen in the queue. Marc Davis put that cave there for a reason – it’s the first concrete, unambiguous sign that pirates are indeed afoot – there they are, just out of sight in that cave! We hear the scraping of shovels and their drunken singing and laughing. We know from cultural association that they’re digging for treasure.
Then we drop down into town and – at least before Captain Jack Sparrow became the main thing on everyone’s mind – we hear, time and again, the pirates are out looking for treasure:
“Speak up ye bilge rat! Where be the treasure?”
“Do not tell him, Carlos! Don’t be chicken!”
And then at the end of the ride, we see the fortress’ treasure hold and that the pirates have discovered it. We’re expected to take this as a clear indication of a narrative resolution. The idea of “looking for treasure” occurs before we get on the ride, during the ride, and as a resolution to the ride, uniquely in this version. It’s the primary structuring feature of the Florida attraction.
So what is Dead Man’s Cove about? We see the skeletons of pirates and hear the repeated warning “dead men tell no tales”. In Disneyland, “dead men tell no tales” doubles as a warning: “the answers you’re looking for aren’t here”. In Florida, it simply and only refers to the actual Dead Man’s Cove scene, because the other scenes from the haunted caverns – the inn, the bedroom, the treasure horde – don’t appear. In Florida, it’s as much of an explanation as it is a warning: these pirates were killed to protect the location of the treasure buried here.
The scene is open to enough interpretation that other, competing speculation has advanced ideas that, say, this is a later band of pirates who killed each other over the gold buried here. I’m confident in my interpretation that the pirates were killed to silence them not only because the idea can be found in Treasure Island, the key source for the ride, but because X Atencio actually wrote narration intended for the caverns sequence that made this clear:
“Hear ye a dead man’s tale, what dastardly deed! Brave sea men, these. Helped bury the gold, they did – then silenced forever. Cursed be that black hearted villain! But, stay – I told their tale a’fore, now I be telling it again!”
So this is definitely the burying place for treasure – a lost burying place, because the captain of the ship killed the men who buried it. And if we take the next scene – the skeleton steering a shipwreck – as an indication that the captain then went down with his ship, then the location of the treasure is well and truly lost, and we can now slot this tableau into the story the Florida attraction is telling. Remember, we hear pirates digging in a cave for gold, then board our boats and discover a burial location of gold — in a cave.
This lost gold is why the pirates attack the island. Presumably, the lost gold was buried there generations before, back when it was mostly uninhabited. In years since, the Spanish crown has turned the area where the gold was buried into a sea-port, and ironically built fortifications right on top of the lost pirate gold.
This is why the pirates fire on the fort, dig in the caverns around it, and raid the town – they assume it was uncovered during the construction. Little do they know that the Spanish didn’t find the gold, either – it’s still guarded by ghosts and skeletons deep below the fortifications.
Marc was a keen observer of what worked and what didn’t in theme parks. The notion of taxidermy animals “waking up” to start a show – an idea repeated for Club 33 and presumably coming direct from Walt Disney – was used again for the start of Country Bear Jamboree. After seeing how effective those unplanned subterranean caverns were at Pirates, Marc would have filed that away in his mind for later use. Marc repeated caverns in his designs for Western River Expedition, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer Island, and Enchanted Snow Palace, and said this to The E-Ticket in 1999:
“You know, you don’t really know what’s up ahead when you go down into the mysterious area beneath New Orleans Square where all the skeletons are. That mystery area works very well, with the the wind and the dampness, and then the voices.”
Marc once said Claude Coats’ work was “very commendable”, so this recollection by him of the grotto counts as lavish praise. So it makes sense that he would have wanted to retain that element for the Florida show despite having intentionally removed the time travel concept. Going back to the core idea for Dead Man’s Cove and building the motivation for the attraction around that tableau was a clever idea.
….which isn’t the same as saying that the idea actually worked. There’s plenty of Marc designed gags that didn’t come off as well as, say, the stretch room portraits. For every few brilliant, snappy, instantly comprehensible visual ideas like the Ballroom duelists in the Haunted Mansion, there’s something like the Mummy in the graveyard. I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding what the deal with the Mummy talking the old guy is than when I was eight. Marc was uncommonly brilliant, but he wasn’t perfect.
But it’s not as if the experiment with the Florida Pirates was a total wash. Marc took the time to expand and alter Claude Coats’ layout of the town sequence so that it’s better paced and longer. At Disneyland, the boats approach the well scene from a slightly odd side angle, then turn and end up right in the Auction. In Magic Kingdom, the boats approach and ride alongside the well scene, then ride past some new Marc-designed architecture between the Well and the Auction that adds a bit more build and release to the experience.
At Disneyland, the haunted grotto sequences are brilliant, but they aren’t really scary – mysterious, strange, but not scary. For Florida, Marc pushed the ceiling of the cavern down on riders and darkened everything, reserving Claude’s beautiful waterfalls for a short scenic stretch at the start. The result – with the narrower caverns, darkness, and loud voices – was truly unnerving. When given the opportunity to rework Pirates a third time for Tokyo Disneyland, Marc brought back the bayou and the extended caves, but kept the low ceiling, the darkness, and the menacing tone. He also replicated the Magic Kingdom town sequences and the unload area – no trip back up the waterfall. Comparing Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland’s Pirate attractions reveals much of Marc’s thinking about some of his most iconic creations.
|Tokyo’s Pirates: a darn good compromise|
Perhaps in the future some team of Imagineers will attempt to embrace Marc’s ideas in the 1973 Pirates instead of work against them. Concieving of the attraction as being a compromised gloss of what was done at Disneyland is not just a disservice to Marc Davis, but it leads to poorly executed additions that do little to harmonize with what the attraction does well. There’s no time travel. It’s a linear adventure with an en media res opening, a strong motivating image, and an elaborate second act. It may not be as good as Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland…. but almost nothing is, and certainly not anything built in the past twenty years by any theme park operator.
Florida Pirates is a good ride, but it needs special consideration – and it hasn’t really gotten any since 1973, when it was built. It’s time to fix it.
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