Yo Ho Yo Ho a Pirate's Life for Me
Updated: Jan 7
Discover the hidden treasures behind WDW’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction
Pirates of the Caribbean first opened in Disneyland in 1968. When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, many guests were disappointed to learn that Pirates was not included in the original planning of the park. In its place, Western River Expedition was set to be developed. It was designed to be a western-themed boat ride at the edge of Adventureland in Frontierland, but was never actually built. Walt had planned to include Pirates in WDW as a wax museum. After the creation of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Walt wanted to incorporate animatronics in a ride-through version. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) developed the ride in less than a year and it opened in 1973. Many changes have been made throughout the years, including the addition of characters from the movie and removing some of the controversial portrayals.
As the guest enters the queue, they find themselves in a stretch of a room lined by columns and linking arches. The entrance of the Spanish fort features heavy, wooden doors and is lit by small lanterns. The path winds the guest through many rooms of the fort. The dim lighting and heightened air conditioning creates a sense of being deep within the fort. One of the many rooms that guests pass through in the FastPass line is the dungeon. It is located adjacent to the exterior wall, which is historically inaccurate because dungeons were located toward the center of the fort, below ground level. This would avoid the chances of an attack blowing up the wall and freeing prisoners. Another inaccuracy is the prisoners being located in the center of the room playing chess. Typically, they would be chained to the walls, but the Imagineers wanted to keep it family-friendly and humorous with an unwinnable chessboard. The chess pieces were originally placed at a stalemate, but there is speculation they have shifted over the years.
Toward the end of the queue, guests exit the fort and come upon a small port town where a canal runs inland. The guests load onto the bateau inspired ride vehicles that carry 24 passengers, four in each row. These types of boats were originally made to transport heavy cargo and carry between one to 20 men. Pirates ended up using them to maraud and terrorize towns along the water, making them the perfect choice for the ride vehicle. Once seated, the audio begins, “Ahoy mateys.” The first scene guests will come upon is a beach where skeletons lay. There used to be mermaid skeletons but those have since been replaced. The ride then takes the guests through a series of caves and through a waterfall where Blackbeard appears to warn guests. When the ride first opened there was no character in the waterfall. WDI later added Davy Jones and then Blackbeard. The boat goes down a hill in pitch black, creating the illusion of a steeper drop, and guests find themselves in the midst of a battle between El Castillo del Morro and the Wicked Wench, a pirate frigate commanded by Captain Barbossa. Imagineers used forced perspective to make the frigate look like a full-sized ship by creating the upper deck of the ship masts and sails smaller to appear higher than they really are. They also used illusions for the cannonballs being fired at the boat. They do this by moving the canons, flashing lights and forcing a burst of air under the water to make the splash.
In the next few scenes, guests watch as a man is dunked in water to try to make him confess what he knows about Jack Sparrow and the treasure. His wife can be seen emerging from a window discouraging him to tell the pirates any information. Then, they see women chasing men with loot, men trying to convince a dog to free them and the final scene of Jack Sparrow surrounded by treasure.
The auction scene has had the main focus in the past couple years as the storyline was changed to empower women. The original scene included men bidding on women to be their brides. Disney decided to give this scene a much-needed update and reintroduced the character “Redd,” as the auctioneer instead of a bride. The audio changed from, “We want the redhead,” to “We want the rum!” Redd was also given a few lines, “Strike yer feathers, dearie, show em yer flock. Eh, send them hens to Davy Jones. It’s the rum they want!”
Many guests talk about enjoying the smell of Pirates’ water and it being one of the distinct smells of Disney World. Oddly enough, there are candle companies that sell candles intended to smell like the ride so guests can have that memory even when they’re at home. Another fun fact about this ride is that there are many Hidden Mickeys along the way. So keep an eye open for these. Hint: check out the lock where the prisoners are begging a dog to unlock their cell.
Consistent with gothic architecture of the 17th and 18th century Spanish Caribbean colonies, the exterior is loosely based on El Castillo de San Juan del Morro, a Spanish fort that dominated the coastline of Puerto Rico just outside the capital of San Juan. The interior architecture is consistent with 17th and 18th century Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. This style is evident in the red-clay tile roofs, sash-shuttered windows, balconies with metal banisters and covered public walkways.
The archways within the queue are considered transverse mason archways. This means that it is made up of individual blocks arranged in an arch with the center block at a 90 degree angle. The archways and colonies give the deception that the rooms are bigger than they actually are.
On the outside of the building, a twenty-foot clock tower stands with a bellcote on the top, which can usually be found on churches and forts to hold up to three large bells. These bells would signal different occasions to the town. Unfortunately, the one that sits on top of the tower in WDW is not functional.
Located in the Caribbean Plaza part of Adventureland, guests will notice the similar architecture with Tortuga Tavern and other surrounding buildings. There are also palm trees, barrels and background music to help immerse the guest in a 1930s adventurer/explorer vibe. Guests can even treat themselves to some Pineapple Dole Whip from Aloha Isle to add to the Caribbean-feel.
The addition of Intellectual Property in the ride can also be seen in the area with Captain Jack meet-and-greets and scheduled shows. These are tactical deployments to maintain crowds and shift guests throughout the park.
There are over 120 audio animatronics on this ride. Audio animatronics are a form of robotics created by WDI that are used in attractions and shows across the theme parks. Many animatronics use hydraulics to power the movement. Hydraulics allow an arm to move from all the way up to all the way down. Whereas pneumatic movements are used for eyelids, fingers, beaks and other smaller moving parts. Pneumatic muscles are not powerful enough to move the larger limbs and figures. They also utilize an analog system that allows the arm to move in terms of proportions and percentages to perform a more realistic movement.
After the release of the movie in 2006, Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbossa and Davy Jones were added as animatronics throughout the ride. Their voice overs in the ride were all recorded by the original actors of the movie. The most recent enhancement of this ride is the remodel of Redd in the auction scene, formally known as “The Redhead.” She is one of the most advanced audio animatronics that works similar to the Shaman in Pandora. Not only did her mechanics get an upgrade, but she also received a much needed makeover. From head to toe, the details are immaculate. She’s even holding a couple of guns and a bottle of rum!
This classic pirate story, strung along with a catchy theme song remains a fan-favorite and often has over an hour wait. It is refreshing to see that WDI continues to keep up with the times and makes appropriate changes. And as the theme song goes, “Yo Ho! Yo Ho! A pirate’s life for me!”