Happy 50th birthday to Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

March 14, 2017, 12:46 PM · Can it be? The greatest dark ride of all time is half a century old?

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.

Marc Davis and Walt Disney
Disney Legend Marc Davis shows Walt Disney one of the Audio Animatronics for Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates was the final attraction Walt oversaw before his death in 1966. Photo courtesy Disney

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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Replies (17)

March 14, 2017 at 1:24 PM · Without a doubt Pirates is the greatest dark ride ever created... Other than the Haunted Mansion which is also greatest dark ride ever created.
March 14, 2017 at 1:48 PM · It's a great ride. When I took my kids to DLR in January, this was the ride my daughter insisted on going on time after time. She couldn't get enough. It's amazing that it's 50 years old.
March 14, 2017 at 3:21 PM · They are selling a collectible Pirates mug to go along with the collectible Beauty and Beast souvenir rose glass and the collectible Tiki mug. So much to buy.
March 14, 2017 at 2:31 PM · So much ending up on eBay. :-/
March 14, 2017 at 3:09 PM · Egad! Based on Robert's last comment, I zipped over to Ebay. The first of the Beauty and the Beast enchanted rose cost $61! The gall of some people!
March 14, 2017 at 3:13 PM · If we are talking about the traditional Pirates experience the Shanghai should be left out of the conversation completely. Comparing Shanghai's Pirates to the others is like comparing Star Tours to Space Mountain. Yes, they both are set in a sci-fi universe and include space travel but that's really where the similarities end.
Now, it does drive me a little buggy to see Walt Disney World's Pirates get more votes than Paris'. Disneyland Paris' Pirates takes all the lessons learned from previous versions of the ride and perfects the experiences. My wife, who is a life long Disneyland fan, was left absolutely speechless after riding the Paris version. The grand expanses of the show scenes, the amazing sword dueling animatronics and amazing queue is just astounding. If asked, I would say that Paris' is just a smidge better than the original.
March 15, 2017 at 3:59 AM · Personally, I don't consider Shanghai's attraction to be a version of Pirates of the Caribbean, but rather a unique attraction with prominent similarities (much like Phantom Manor or Mystic Manor vs Haunted Mansion). However, an argument could be made either way.

In any case, it is hard to say that any version of the ride surpasses the California original (particularly if the toning down over time is ignored), but the version in Paris does come very, very close. In fact, I'd probably rank it above the current California edition (at least as long as it remains Jack Sparrow free). I can't speak from experience for Florida or Tokyo, but from videos both definitely seem to be lacking (especially Florida's version). Is it the greatest dark ride ever built? At the time, indisputably, and while I wouldn't argue that opinion I personally don't hold it given how many amazing attractions have come since. That said, Pirates may be the most influential theme park attraction of all time, and if you restrict your criteria to atmospheric dark rides (vs. action-oriented like Indiana Jones Adventure), I doubt anything else will ever be able to claim the crown.

March 15, 2017 at 2:34 AM · At 50, Pirates of the Caribbean is now like a classic masterpiece movie (think Citizen Kane, 2001 and others). The big difference is that people are still going (and for a fee!) to a "theater" to see it everyday! ;)
March 15, 2017 at 3:38 AM · AJ Hummel, sorry to bust your bubble, but the French one is under refurbishment as we speak to receive its own Jack Sparrow...

I was fortunate enough to have been on Shanghai's version, and I do agree that it should be considered another version of this ride - much like Mystic Manor at HK Disneyland.

With that said, Disneyland's version is an all-time favorite. Even though I've been (way) more often to the one in Florida, the drop at the beginning and the sheer size of the attraction make it unforgettable. The only place it loses points is its exterior, but that's all.

Long live Pirates of the Caribbean!

March 15, 2017 at 5:50 AM · Sorry, but Paris Pirates is hands-down the best. Just like Phantom Manor trumps all Haunted Mansions. (*lights fuse, steps back*)

Conflicted feelings over the current renovation bringing a Jack Sparrow or three - but it also means we're apparently getting a few 'exclusive' new features and effects too, so I suspect it'll be worth it.

And yeah, Shanghai's a whole different (amazing) experience. Although it does stay truer to the spirit of the original than I thought it would - there's some really lush ambient work in the first half of the ride that just doesn't come across in videos. Definitely one to savour and re-ride as much as any other version.

March 15, 2017 at 8:10 AM · its maths not math
March 15, 2017 at 10:48 AM · It's "it's" not "its".
March 15, 2017 at 11:20 AM · The Paris version is the best I've seen. I can't comment of Sheinghi because I haven't been there. Tokyo would be second because it combines the best of the MK version and the DL original. DL would be next, only slightly below Tokyo. MK rates last with a shorter ride time but a nice que.
March 15, 2017 at 11:23 AM · Shanghai, Anaheim, Paris are all Pirates experiences to me, just expressed in different ways. So it's fair to consider them together.

Plus, it's my site and I thought it would make for a fun poll, which given how we're all arguing about this means I probably was right. ;^)

My problem with Paris is that I haven't ridden it enough to wrap my head around it, which typically I would consider a knock on any attraction, but I'm willing to cut Paris' Pirates some slack because I'm not judging it from scratch but from the perspective of someone who had the "traditional" Pirates committed to memory. I need to undo that perspective, if you will, in order to appreciate the Paris version for what it is, and I simply haven't had enough time in my one trip to the park to have done that yet.

Phantom Manor is basically Mansion with an extended graveyard scene that revives the old Western River Expedition creative that never got built at WDW, so I can wrap my head around that one. (And it is amazing, BTW.) But Pirates is so different from - yet similar to - the other versions that it just left me asking "what the hell was THAT?" even after a couple of rides.

Another reason to head back to Paris, I guess.

March 15, 2017 at 11:54 AM · No, just see the YouTube. I thought the Shanghai version of Pirates was quite amazing. Certainly a new take with Jack Sparrow fully integrated. Better than any Pirates movie.
March 16, 2017 at 10:27 AM · Just amazing ride. I enjoy the Disneyland version a bit more but WDW is always big for me thanks to the great waiting area and even with shifts, it's a great experience to enjoy.
March 16, 2017 at 11:30 AM · I chose the Shanghai version. I have only seen it on YouTube, so I am violating my own principles by judging a ride based on the YouTube videos. I made an exception because no other ride video has ever left me with my jaw on the floor!
It's clear that Shanghai Pirates is one of the greatest rides in the world. I love the classic original, but let's be honest: Shanghai Pirates is a modern masterpiece, and far surpasses any other Pirates ride.

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