Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean opened for the first time on March 18, 1967. Which means, if you do the math, the ride will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend. And if you want to argue with me over Pirates being the greatest dark ride of all time, well, I accept that challenge.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney and his designers used relatively basic fun house carnival rides to bring Disney's animated movies to life in Fantasyland. Disney raised its game for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, creating a water-filled flume to carry riders in boats through It's a Small World. Disney's Imagineers also created the first human Audio Animatronic characters for the fair, with its Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction for the State of Illinois pavilion and the Carousel of Progress for General Electric.
And three years later, Pirates of the Caribbean brought everything Disney had done with theme park attractions together into one blockbuster dark ride: Lifelike human Audio Animatronics, an advanced ride system, a thrilling double drop, impressive theatrical effects, with everything tied together by a catchy theme song.
With a 1,838-foot flume and a ride time over 12 minutes, Pirates of the Caribbean offers an attraction length more like a show than a ride, which tends to be over in just a couple of minutes. But the use of Audio Animatronics and automated stage effects allows Disney to run this show continuously, allowing Pirates to serve tens of thousands of visitors daily. Disneyland reports that the ride has hosted approximately 400 million guests since its 1967 debut. That's more than the current populations of the United States and Canada, combined.
Among those fans are probably every major theme park attraction designer working in the world today. Pirates' influence upon the industry is unmistakable. To this day, the standard that every major new top-tier theme park attraction is judged against is this: "Is it better than Disneyland's Pirates?" You know a new attraction is good if the response isn't instantaneous, dismissive laughter, because for many new attractions, that is how fans react when asked that question. Great attractions provoke long, impassioned debates among fans as to whether the ride is better than Pirates or not. Very few, if any, rides shut down the question with an immediate "yes."
But even those select few attractions that some fans might insist are better than Pirates [Indiana Jones Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Mystic Manor, etc.] haven't yet established a legacy of influence within not just the theme park industry but the entire entertainment business that Pirates of the Caribbean has. Tired of theme park rides based on movies? Pirates today is a multi-billion dollar film franchise based on a theme park ride. Just drop the mic, Pirates. You've won.
Of course, Pirates isn't a single theme park ride anymore, either. Walt Disney World scuttled plans to build a Western River Expedition attraction in favor of building a Pirates of the Caribbean ride, in order to satisfy non-stop guest demands after the resort opened in 1971. But it's not the same experience in Florida. Disney cut some scenes from the Disneyland version and built a separate unload platform, saving guests from having to ride the lift back up to the load level.
When Pirates opened at Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, Disney restored the cut scenes, but kept the separate unload. But for Disneyland Paris in 1992, Disney reordered the entire Pirates experience, with guests riding up a lift hill near the beginning of the ride, with the drops moved toward the end.
And last year, Disney reinvented its Pirates ride with Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland. A completely new experience, with a unique ride system, projection mapping, a mix of screens and practical sets, along with Disney's Audio Animatronics, Shanghai's Pirates won our Theme Park Insider Award for the Best New Attraction in 2016.
Disneyland's original installation has changed over the years, too. What was more a historically accurate depiction of pirates' crimes against women today provides a more sanitized view of a pirate raid, with gluttony and avarice taking over more of lust's time in the ride's narrative roll call of seven deadly sins. And Disney's retcon'd most installations of the ride to install characters from the Pirates movies, including Captain Jack Sparrow.
On a personal note, Pirates was one of my favorite homes when I worked attractions at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I spent several summers loading and unloading boats on the Florida version of the ride, and to this day I can still load a boat in Spanish. ("Cuatro personas por fila, por favor.") Many of my favorite stories from working at the Walt Disney World Resort are set at Pirates, including the time I rescued the future President of France from being lost in the queue, busting kids on Grad Night, the time we discovered what some people do when they think they're alone at Disney without realizing we have security cameras, the time I became part of the ride, the other time I had to evacuate myself from the attraction, and the time I first realized how important Disney is to many fans.
Disneyland is celebrating Pirates' 50th anniversary this week with pirate-themed food specials in New Orleans Square March 16-18, including a Buccaneer Pulled Pork Sandwich, Lost Treasure Beignets (lemon flavored with gold shimmer dust), and Jolly Roger Punch. Captain Jack Sparrow will make appearances on the 18th, and limited edition Pirates souvenirs will be available for sale, too. (The ride reopens Thursday after its recent refurbishment.)
Update: I've got more on the enduring legacy of Pirates of the Caribbean in my Orange County Register column this week.
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