Lusting for some controversy? The awkward history of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean

January 2, 2014, 8:39 PM · As a kid I was fortunate enough to grow up near Disneyland and made the pilgrimage a couple of times a year. I loved visiting Disneyland and made it my mission to try and hit as many rides as possible each visit and take in all the sights and smells of that incredible park. Although I now live and work on the east coast, I still visit family in southern California and every once in a while we make the trek to Anaheim. The park has always held a special place in my heart and I even proposed to my wife in front of the castle. This year was the 10th anniversary of that proposal and we decided to commemorate the event with another visit. While I have ridden dozens of rides at a variety of theme parks none have captured my imagination better than the west coast original, Pirates of the Caribbean.

This ride is awesome in too many ways to count, from the queue which features portraits of real notable pirates, to boarding at "Lafitte's Landing" (an often-overlooked nod to the French Pirate who helped turn the tide at the Battle of New Orleans), to the battle that rains cannonballs around you. As a kid, this always was my favorite ride and helped inspire me to become a historian. Upon the latest ride, I was reminded of some scenes that have changed drastically over the years. That has a lot to do with how we choose to remember and interpret history.

We wants the redhead!
Photo submitted by Brandon Mendoza

Of particular note is how the pirates have been portrayed when it comes to their lustful reputation. Pirates operating in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (early 18th century) were known to frequent brothels and were no strangers to sex and raping. In its original incarnation, Disney's ride did not gloss over this aspect. Instead, several scenes depicted the pirate lustfully chasing after female villagers. This clip features the original ride's promo video (the pertinent scenes are from 3:58-5:30):

Three scenes are of particular note. The first showcases the famous pirate auction where Pirates are encouraged to bid and "take a wench for a bride." This scene is mostly identical now as it was when the ride debut in 1967. The next scene featured pirates chasing townswomen around, trying to capture them. In addition there was the infamous "pooped pirate" who has tired from his skirt-chasing and converses with the guests. Asking if they have seen the fine wench he is pursuing, what he would do to her and even offers to "share" her (considerate pirates are so rare these days.) Starting in the 1990s, public opinion berated Disney for these sexist scenes and they were altered repeatedly. Now, the women chase pirates who are carrying looted goods. The wannabe rapist pirate has now been replaced with a buccaneer searching for a treasure map. Yet the auction scene has escaped most change. It still features women being bought and sold, including a weeping girl at the back awaiting her fate. Perhaps this scene is still acceptable since the pirates are agreeing to marry the women and make them "honest."

All of this does bring up some rather interesting points. In my last article I discussed the failure of Disney's America and how one reason for its demise was the charge of "Disneyfication" — that Disney could not do justice to history and thus would ruin the experience by whitewashing sensitive subjects. Yet in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the opposite occurred. The lustful pirate, while historically accurate, was deemed insensitive and thus removed to make the attraction more family friendly. But when we really think about it, the ride is far from family friendly. The altered chase scene now features pirates who have looted goods. The pirates still set fire to the town and then, toward the end, we are greeted by the sight of drunken swashbucklers recklessly shooting firearms at each other in a room full of explosives. Thus according to the current mindset alcoholism, attempted murder, robbery, theft, and arson are all acceptable but a pirate chasing a girl crosses the line. The main question still remains — can history and theme parks co-exist, or are we doomed to jump from controversy to controversy whenever the two meet?

Replies (5)

January 2, 2014 at 10:09 PM · The interesting thing to consider is how sensibilities and contexts seem to have changed. Something fine now is taboo and vice versa.

My theory of why the Auction sticks around? The Redhead, while going to be auctioned, seems to be the real one in charge in that scene.

January 3, 2014 at 1:24 AM · Thanks for the thoughtful post.

With the changes Disney has made to PotC over the past couple decades, they have soft-pedaled some of the pirates' evil deeds to become more akin to playful misbehavior (like the movies). The ride's signature song is also quite whimsical so it fits into this new paradigm of whimsy ostensbily being pushed by Disney.

I suppose another simple reason the wench scene remains is it would be quite costly to redesign that entire show scene, so it could just be a matter of money and profit. If there were a true outcry, I suppose they would change it in order to avoid the bad PR, but I haven't heard of any movement calling to delete the wench scene.

In any case, the addition of Jack Sparrow completely changed the main narrative thrust of the attraction. It used to be a look at those awful pirates and their degenerate lives so we should be thankful we don't join them (dead men tell no tales). But now dead men do tell tales and get the treasures as the narrator tells us as we ascend the final waterfall. Whimsical misbehavior a la Jack Sparrow has its rewards.

In any case, the DL version of PotC is still a great attraction, and one of the most amazing ever created.

January 3, 2014 at 6:46 AM · This article was just excellent. I really enjoyed it. I LOVE these stories on the history of different attractions. This is why I make TPI one of my breakfast reads every morning. Nothing better than starting my day with some TPI wonderfulness! :)
January 3, 2014 at 1:38 PM · Disneyland is an amusement park. As such, when I visit the park I expect to see things I would never see in real life. Elephants flying. The Yeti. A woman being auctioned off. Would I tolerate the 3rd, in real life? No. On the other hand, I am descended from slaves, so I know this went on. The controversy over "Pirates" is a tempest in a teapot. It is fantasy, nothing more. Are we concerned that the young women on the storybook boat ride (at least used to) dress like they are in private elementary school? I hope not. We are being too sensitive here. Parents can use this as a teaching tool - and talk about how far (we would like to think) we have come from days when these practices were, at the very least, tolerated.

Bob Dylan addressed this topic in a song called "Long Ago and Far Away". My favorite version is by The Brothers Four. I recommend it to you.

January 8, 2014 at 3:54 AM · Thank you, absolutely bright story, Matt !
Not all things are, as the wishfull thinking wants them to be to fit in a framed story about how and why changes occurred. Especially when it comes to an attempt, retracing the attraction history, one must be more carefull. It starts with registering what was.

Quote: < The next scene featured pirates chasing townswomen around, trying to capture them. ..//.. Now, the women chase pirates who are carrying looted goods. >
"Now" ?
No, sorry, not true. It was "ever since" !
The original boosted BOTH pirates chasing woman (the 'logic', as "joke opener" / see video 4:53>) AND woman chasing pirates (the unprobable contrasting scene, as "joke maker" / see video 5:02>), and chicken chasing chicken (gender?? ;-) as "the supplementing cartoony offset from history").
If you trace well the-making-of, you will be able to find the discussions around this well reasoned scene composition which was meant to get a "ohh, and haha, and I-got-it" sentiment from the carefull re-visiting rider.
PoTC is the kind of elaborated attraction where re-riding is so rewarding, as to "get" details and humour only after you've seen it several times. One could say: perfect marketing in re-riding. But also just, perfect theatrical complexity, which was THE thing that made Disney, Disney... To be more precise : 'Walt' Disney, not Disney Corp. ...

The far majority of recent "A ticket" Disney attractions have NO experience depth anymore, they are mental flat, singular level only, visual experiences, where the next rides after the first one don't bring on new findings.
My theory behind this, is that the new attractions have been deprived of the traditional film scenarists & animators leading roles in the development. Even if very expensive, the multi-level/depth story magic (and humour) is ... missing.

This brings me to a totally different assumption why the original mental 3-level scene of the chasing-around's, was changed into a 1-level boring, after refurbishment : the actual non literary simplicity of the "imagineers'" minds. Like : < oh, woman chasing pirates is more "fun" , right? So, let's do just woman chasing pirates. >
I dare to postulate, that most probably, "the 1990-ies public opinion" has nothing to do with it. But the flattening of the whole imagineering job to nothing more then a repeated technical exercise, probable has all to do with it. And harmfull descisionmaking, in brand marketing. 'Jack Sparrow' needed to have a spot, there... from a purely commercial IP-contract viewpoint. Having a "star" dropped in a standalone fantasy, is mentally destroying the fantasy, because it recalls "his acting in the film", and distracts from the original power of the attraction scenario.
Perhaps, true imagineering is almost dead, with Disney? (And still growing with Efteling, at less then 10% of comparable development budgets) Disney still builds the-best-there-is, but only on an uninspired technical level...

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