Disney, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the trouble with selling nostalgia

July 5, 2017, 10:51 AM · Nostalgia fuels a great deal of Disney's success in the theme park industry. It's hardly the sole reason for its dominance — Disney might have the greatest collection of franchises among all studios in Hollywood. With its theme parks, Disney generally delivers an outstanding customer service experience in comfortable and engaging environments. But Disney doesn't rely on those strengths. It looks to amplify them by weaving an appeal to nostalgia throughout its marketing and theme park experiences helping to ensure that no one ever outgrows "going to Disney." Disney positions its theme parks as a place where grown-ups can re-live their youth, and generations can connect in a timeless delight.

But an appeal to people's fond memories of the past carries some risk for a modern company, especially when many people don't look upon all elements of that past so fondly. Not everything passes the test of time.

Who decides what passes that test, and what fails? That is the central issue animating a conflict between Disney and some of its most devoted fans. The latest battle in this conflict is the debate over Disney's announcement that it will change the Auction scene in its Pirates of the Caribbean rides, to remove what many consider a depiction of human trafficking.

Okay, let's not wimp out of this. The Auction scene absolutely depicts human trafficking. That shouldn't be an issue. The only question should be whether the context for that depiction is responsible, or not.

In my Orange County Register column this week, I defend the Disney Imagineers who created the Auction scene... and defend Disney's decision now to change it. In the column, I point out that the original ending of the Disneyland version of the ride left all the Pirates facing certain death.

Whether they rot in prison or get blown sky-high after drunkenly shooting up an arsenal, Disneyland’s pirates originally all paid the ultimate price for their crimes by the end of the ride.

But when Disney changed the ride a decade ago to add "good guy" Captain Jack Sparrow to the attraction, they let the pirates get away with it. And that made the auction scene unjustifiable, to many fans.

Once Disney started changing the Pirates ride from its original narrative to that from its films, it couldn't stop halfway without opening itself up to criticism that it was endorsing what the pirates were doing on that ride. So rather than going back to the original — and sacrificing a tie-in to its multi-billion-dollar movie franchise — Disney is taking a step toward going all in on the movie narrative in the rides. If the pirates are going to be the good guys, the Auction scene had to go. So Annie the Redhead is getting her gun.

That decision has disappointed thousands of Disney fans, for whom the original Pirates ride — of even the recent, awkward hybrid version — is part of their fond memories of Disney visits past. I suspect many of them feel like victims of a bait and switch. Disney promised them nostalgia, and now is failing to deliver.

That feeling also fueled the outrage over the Tower of Terror/Guardians of the Galaxy conversion and pretty much every other major change Disneyland has made over the past several decades. Disney doesn't always make the right decisions as it looks to improve its parks (Journey into Your Imagination with Figment, The Enchanted Tiki Room Under New Management, Rocket Rods and New Tomorrowland, etc.) But it needs to keep changing to continue to appeal to a changing market of theme park fans.

We want immersive themed environments now, not generic collections of stand-alone attractions. We don't want to wait in long serpentine queues. And many of us don't want to go on rides and watch shows that contain moments that leave people cringing instead of smiling.

Look, Disney's always white-washed the past. It cleans the horse poop on Main Street USA, instead of letting it collect as it would have in the real turn-of-the-20th-century America. Food's readily available in Frontierland, and no one's dying of the Black Plague in Fantasyland. The trick to selling nostalgia is to keep the elements of the past that people remember fondly and to quietly ignore the rest.

But as Disneyland's present continuously fades into its past, Disney must edit itself as it makes those decisions for a new generation. With as many fans as Disney has won over the years, those decisions always are going to leave someone disappointed. Will they be disappointed enough to stop being Disney fans? If so, can Disney win over new fans to replace them with a more responsible and engaging line-up of attractions?

Ultimately, as with just about anything in business, this is a numbers game. For what it is worth, I think Disney is doing the right thing here with Pirates. I also believe that the numbers will prove to be on Disney's side, too, as even more fans will continue to enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean after Disney makes the change.

Read Robert's column:

Replies (30)

July 5, 2017 at 11:07 AM · Finally a voice of reason vs hate of change.

Time change, and our acceptance of what is right and wrong changes. I understand that the scene taken out was "historically accurate" and if we want education then this should be part of it.

However when it is posed as entertainment then aren't we unconsciously re enforcing that as acceptable on impressionable young minds?

July 5, 2017 at 11:09 AM · I remember a blog years back talking of how "Disney fans want the parks to be like the Rose of the Beast, kept safe forever in a glass case. Ignoring that the point is inside that "safe zone," the rose eventually wilts and dies."

I just met with my cousin who took her kids to Disney and when she heard of this, she said "good." Because having a light-hearted adventure showing ugly women being dismissed in an auction and a hot redhead lusted over was a bit disturbing. Great article pointing out the vastly different values of the 1960s vs today and how the change makes sense as just because something is "classic" doesn't make it "right."

July 5, 2017 at 11:45 AM · It's not just the inclusion of Jack Sparrow either. It's the way Disney now markets the Pirates franchise. At the point where we're teaching little boys to dress up and become pirates, we need to start changing how they think about pirates, or we're going to have a lot of murderous, looting men in 10 years.

Disney has decided they can make more money by treating Pirates as heroes than as villains. So, they need to sanitize all of piracy to do so. That's not political correctness being the issue. That's Disney making a choice to make more money and now having to stand by it.

July 5, 2017 at 11:54 AM · I don't agree with the auction scene change, but I think you have found the root of the issue. This is the danger that Disney runs into with the changes of the attractions. Disneyland seems to have been guilty of this more often. Then again, Disneyland is dripping with nostalgia.

This isn't even a Disney only problem. Universal has been very guilty of this with the ax taken to Jaws, ET, King Kong, and Back to the Future

July 5, 2017 at 12:29 PM · I'd prefer they just place one Jack Sparrow animatronic in the jail scene, get rid of the others and return the rides narrative back to the way it was. but since I know they aren't going to do that, could they at least replace the Auction scene with something better than a crappy version of that same scene? How about giving us something so great we forget we ever missed the old scene?
July 6, 2017 at 3:50 AM · Here's some food for thought: I read elsewhere on the Disney blogosphere that it wasn't so much the rape and sexual slavery in the auction scene as it was the fat-shaming aspect of the portly "wench" currently being auctioned that either Disney was afraid that visitors would be hypersensitive towards, or had already received negative response towards.

Conceivable or far-fetched?

July 5, 2017 at 12:51 PM · Spaceman,

I agree with that take - it's an important issue that's been disturbing people, too. And Disney fixes it with this change.


Agreed that Universal has been annoying some of its fan base by disposing of so many classic attractions, but it's not been enduring as much blowback simply because Universal doesn't sell nostalgia the way that Disney does.

July 5, 2017 at 12:53 PM · For what it's worth, the tension between "Disney ride classic preservationist" and "update for what people want" is one of the plot drivers in Cory Doctorow's SF novel _Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom_ (2003).
July 5, 2017 at 1:26 PM · I pay more nowadays for a grass-fed ribeye steak these days than an arguably better tasting corn-fed ribeye.

But times and tastes change.

If the auction scene and perhaps the "fat wench" audio are offensive to a significant portion of the people trying to enjoy the ride, why shouldn't Disney change them? This is entertainment and not a historically accurate re-enactment. If you want historical accuracy go download "Saving Private Ryan" or Schindler's List" and limit the viewers to the adults and teens in the household. Let the kids watch something age appropriate for them.

And when it gets down to it, nostalgia is way overrated. About the only things that were better in the past were Coke in the bottle made with real sugar and Epcot.

July 5, 2017 at 1:47 PM · Hoping that the "natives" on the Jungle Cruise are getting their resumes together.
July 5, 2017 at 2:16 PM · Sorry Robert I don;t buy you're argument that adding Jack sparrow changed the narrative/ride. As much as they inserted him into the ride - to the dismay of many - it didn't change the narrative enough to make the bride selling scene any less palatable then any of the other criminal activity that is occurring on the ride. it's all the same. Further as it is scene as art (though locked inside a consumer/commercial venture) it shouldn't be politicized as such. I so no visible movement to change that scene. That scene is as much human trafficking as the mayor dunking scene is torture (water-boarding anyone). At this point they may as well redo the entire ride and change it;s name while they are at it. This stinks and I am pretty much ready to let my AP lapse.
July 5, 2017 at 8:16 PM · Robert: You didn't mention the altered barrel and chase scenes that changed the auction scene narrative. Even though women are auctioned off as brides, the Pirates never caught the women in the barrel and the chase. So the story left hanging on what happened to the women. Jack Sparrow is in the barrel now and in the final scene. Of course, the whole story is muddled.

I thought the skeletons was a prologue to show the Pirates didn't win. They relived their adventures. Jack Sparrow's addition didn't add anything. It's more comedy. Pirates lost it's edge as well as being jolly fun. Let's keep pulling the strings to make the attraction a big bore. Disney needs to step up to bring more cohesion to the narrative.

My solution is keep the original scene with very minor changes. The sexual morality still exists and it's represented with Red Head as a Madam. Some women are fellow prostitutes and dressed accordingly. Thus, consenting adults. Remove the banner. The fat woman is the Captain's wife. The chase scene should show villagers being chased with valuables featured in the movies. Jack Sparrow's narrative must work in the new attraction.

July 5, 2017 at 9:36 PM · Like others have pointed out, there's tons of awful things the Pirates do on the ride. I don't mind them changing it, but it would've been far preferable if the new idea was humorous. This new scene just sounds like they're trying to score brownie points for surface level female empowerment. My idea? A drunken pirate party. Of course, I'm sure someone would gripe about how alcoholism isn't funny. Honestly, as much as I love the ride, just scrap it and give us something resembling Shanghai's attraction.
July 5, 2017 at 11:30 PM · Very good article, enjoyed reading it. And a brave column too, hope you don't get too much hate mail. If Disney does something really cool with the auction space then that will cool down some of those who are angry about the change. At least that's what happened when the popular ToT became a good Guardians ride, but we'll see.

With Disney announcing a team-up with the Rock to re-imagine the Jungle Cruise, I agree with TH Creative that the natives are getting their pink slips soon, which is fine by me. The hokey pokey joke was pretty silly anyway, and that's even by JC standards. ;-)

July 6, 2017 at 1:14 AM · I'd rather Disney put all that "change" money into putting life into that dead carcass Rocket Rods or Figment than white wash and movienize their current rides. It's money not well spent.
July 6, 2017 at 5:47 AM · Disney should absolutely feel free to adapt and update their rides. IMO, they should ride the nostalgia train less and update more.
July 6, 2017 at 11:42 AM · ho boy...this...this will take some time to form a proper response.
July 6, 2017 at 4:59 PM · It's just so lame to me that people are really "offended" over a wench auction and the fat lady being not wanted as much as the prettier lady. It's just such a cornball joke, even a kid understands the humor behind it. Real pirates are so long ago at this point as to be cartoons like cowboys and indians to people anyways. It's innocent and kind of funny, even if you are a big lady.

I can't imagine that there would be real people who would take the time to be offended by this scene to the point that the park wants to change it.

If they are changing it to make it better, go for it. If they are changing it to reflect modern views, that's a slippery slope.

July 6, 2017 at 4:59 PM · It's just so lame to me that people are really "offended" over a wench auction and the fat lady being not wanted as much as the prettier lady. It's just such a cornball joke, even a kid understands the humor behind it. Real pirates are so long ago at this point as to be cartoons like cowboys and indians to people anyways. It's innocent and kind of funny, even if you are a big lady.

I can't imagine that there would be real people who would take the time to be offended by this scene to the point that the park wants to change it.

If they are changing it to make it better, go for it. If they are changing it to reflect modern views, that's a slippery slope.

July 6, 2017 at 10:18 PM · Cornball, I agree. But these days, some people make a career out of being offended.
July 7, 2017 at 6:00 AM · I also am not offended by these things. But, I still think Disney should be able to modify things as they see fit to maintain whatever image they are trying to project.
July 7, 2017 at 9:06 AM · If Disney want to change their attractions, that is their prerogative, however, where will acute Politcal Correctness ultimately go? No male/female animatronics, just trans-gender? No white/black animatronics, only brown? No fat/thin animatronics, only medium build? No tall/short animatronics, only medium height? Heaven forbid if any have ginger hair! Political Correctness gone mad!
July 7, 2017 at 11:22 AM · Every time a change is made to an attraction to fix a controversial scene or story point I automatically think, "Um... Splash Mountain?" The entire IP is based in a movie they won't even produce or sell any longer. Of course, there are no references to the "tar babies," but I wonder why this attraction in particular hasn't fueled any debate, especially given our nation's current racially charged atmosphere.
July 7, 2017 at 2:39 PM · Clayton, zip-a-dee-doo-dah indeed!
July 7, 2017 at 6:42 PM · @Tim

Movies are also entertainment (of course some more than others) and technically can be changed. Rememeber Mr. Lucas' highly controversial changes to Star Wars.

July 7, 2017 at 8:14 PM · Good points. I can understand the fan anger; I've been upset about changes in the past to attractions that I loved. But this one doesn't bother me too much. It makes sense in the larger sense, and your points about the theme of the attraction are valid. I've talked about this with a few more casual Disney fans like my wife, and it seemed like a no brainer to them.
July 8, 2017 at 5:18 PM · Here is my take. Disney has the right to change what it wants to, but let's face it if fans said it with dollars then they would be more thoughtful of why they are changing something. I still want Mr. Toad back but I still go to WDW. As I am not happy with this change it too will not prevent me from going. Although this is a slippery slope they are on now and could mean a lot of issues with other attractions at the parks. Believe it or not Disney does educate at its parks. That is some of the reasons for what is included in some of the attractions. It is education through entertainment. Remember if we ignore the past then we are bond to repeat it as is happening in the world now. The bigger problem I see is that Disney doesn't want to get sued by these individuals, that as one said her make a career out of being offended. I have seen this happen at much smaller venues over the past few years to the detriment of the venue. We have lost a lot of good attractions because of a few ruining things for the majority and the majority stop going because the entertainment value was not there anymore.
As for Universal, up until they put Harry Potter in I never considered them on the same level as Disney as most of their rides had been the same rides you could ride at your local Six Flags just different name. Other than a handful of rides at Disney you are immersed into the ride environment and as such you get a real story told to you.
Just some ramblings from and old Disney fan.
July 9, 2017 at 12:20 PM · I think this is going to be the last straw for my son as far as Disney goes. Ever since his first trip at age 7, Disney has been his most favorite place in the world. When asked how he wanted to celebrate every major milestone - the answer was always the same ... "I want to go to my happy place!" High school graduation, 21st birthday, 25th birthday, 30th birthday ... and that last trip - for his 30th birthday - in April 2017 was a disaster. Too many changes. From the complete destruction of the Hollywood Backlot to menu changes at his favorite restaurant to the near complete takeover of DHS by Star Wars (which we are not fans of) ... he left uncertain if we would ever return. "Pirates" is his favorite MK ride and these changes may just put the nail in the Disney coffin for us (so to speak).
July 10, 2017 at 3:29 AM · What I find incredulous with this announcement is that Disney, as a company, change a fictional scene in a family attraction which offends nobody to promote themselves as morally superior yet they have promoted for 35 years the China pavilion in Epcot, a country which has one of the worst Human Rights records on the planet affecting millions of real people. You decide!
August 13, 2017 at 8:00 AM · Had a discussion with some friends over the weekend who are longtime Disneyland fans and regular visitors.

About the narrative of the ride, I don't think it's at all clear to many visitors that the original 1967 version of Pirates was supposed to be a morality play or that the skeletons in the first part of the ride were directly connected to the live pirates ransacking the town in the second half.

I used the painting of the redheaded woman in the bar scene (who looks remarkably like the redhead in the auction scene) as evidence, and I think that was too obscure for 95% of park visitors, even if it does exist.

The LA Times ran a story last week with some comments by Tony Baxter, who was quoted as saying that he had tried to figure out the narrative of Pirates every which way, and the best he could come up with was the story is a feverish dream about Pirates, in order to tie together the first and second halves of the narrative.

But on the Disneyland website, it does say that after viewing the skeletons and stolen loot, riders then travel FARTHER BACK IN TIME to see the pirates ransacking the town, which suggests that the skeletons were the same pirates who ransacked the town but had met unfortunate ends (I disagree with Robert here: how did the pirates get to the beach or the bar or the bedroom with all the riches? Enough of them survived the fire and the explosions to enjoy their riches, only to be murdered later by their shipmates or die unhappy deaths even with their loot).

The point is, the Imagineers and Mr. Disney didn't plan a straightforward narrative. They left some clues tying the elements together, but the morality play aspect was probably lost to 50% + of park visitors, especially children. The impression they received was probably more along the lines of Tony Baxter's interpretation-- those pirates did some mean, nasty stuff, and some other pirate related weird sh*t happened, too.

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