For most of my life, pirates have ransacked towns, fired cannons, hidden treasures and generally swashed their buckles amid the clear gulf waters of Anaheim, California, about 35 nautical miles from my equally landlocked hometown of Burbank. Those simulated Caribbean high seas only run two feet deep, but their meandering current have set a course of endless adventure for over three decades and counting. I've enjoyed Walt's voyage since I was five and a half, and thus really I can't remember a world without these marauding buccaneers and the creative magic which brought them to life. And still the journey evolves and expands the pirates' life today, with the release of Disney's feature film, inspired by Disneyland's timeless and tune-filled attraction. High time that I offer my praise and tribute to the groundbreaking ride which has become the gold standard in themed entertainment, Walt Disney's original Pirates of the Caribbean.

But first, let's set a course roughly four decades back in history to witness the launch of this classic attraction...


In the late 1950s, nearly a decade of research, imagination and innovation began with a simple idea from Walt: he'd like to do something about pirates. To borrow a punchline from Mel Brooks: worlds are turned on such thoughts, and indeed Walt's own world, Disneyland, soon would spin into an unimagined realm of themed entertainment.

As ever, Walt Disney had many irons in the conceptual furnace, so he enlisted veteran animator and artist Marc Davis to dig up the time-buried history of piracy's golden age on the Spanish Main. Davis's research voyage started in 1961 as he studied the legends and facts of such famed 17th and 18th century pirates as Captain Kidd, Sir Henry Morgan, Blackbeard and a host of many seafaring rogues who sailed under the skull and crossbones.

Davis drew the history of these raiders into focus with his pen sketches and portraits of pirate life. He produced a treasure trove of conceptual art and colorful tableaux of stylized characters, both actual and fictitious, depicted amid their plundering and plotting in dramatic fashion. This artwork bears Davis's distinct style, but the compositions clearly project the action and characters into production for three dimensions, not the typical flat plane of animation.

Thus the initial concept of Pirates of the Caribbean as a wax museum-styled walk-through attraction grew and evolved. Several proposed layouts, each revision more elaborate and spacious than the previous, were designed to fill a subterranean show building under the Disneyland's newest and still unfinished area, New Orleans Square - the first new land added to the Park since its opening in 1955.

The first Pirate walk-through plan, circa 1958

In this walk-through show, guests would stroll into the recreation of a typical coastal town of the Caribbean to witness these salty sea dogs carousing in a tavern, aboard their docked ship, exchanging cannon fire with the town's fortress, and burying their looted treasure in a secluded cove.

The second Pirate walk-through plan in elevation, circa 1960

From the set designs, costumes, and props down to the last golden doubloon, these scenes were quite authentic - and also completely static. At best, guests would view sweeping dioramas of scenes populated with still figures, accompanied by sound and music cues. This was a far cry from the lively, carousing Pirates we know today.

The third, most elaborate Pirate walk-through plan, circa 1963.
Show Building 1 was constructed for this design.


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All material from the ride Pirates of the Caribbean are © Disney Enterprises, Inc.
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All original material on etixland is © 2003 scott weitz.