the history and design of disney’s pirates of the caribbean ride (part 1)
Pirates of the Caribbean has long been one of the most beloved rides at the Disney theme parks. It was the last ride personally overseen by Walt Disney, though it did not open in Disneyland until 1967, three months after his death. Since then, versions of the attraction have opened at Walt Disney World in Florida, and the Disneyland parks in Tokyo, Paris and Shanghai.
But what makes the Pirates of the Caribbean ride experience so popular? While there is a lot to enjoy in Disney’s first-class set design, ambience and theming, a true Disney entertainment experience comes down to one thing: the storytelling.
In this two-part series, I will discuss the storytelling of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, steeped in my love for its immersive design and fascinating history. In this first part, I will talk about the importance of interest curves, and how Pirates captures and holds the audience’s attention in its 16-minute ride duration.
Charting the Full Ride Experience of Pirates of the Caribbean
Though the ride has been updated several times since its opening, the story’s main structure has remained. For the purpose of this article, I will describe and analyse the original Disneyland ride.
Guests start their journey by boarding a boat at Laffite’s Landing, named for the French pirate Jean Laffite (also spelled “Lafitte”). They spend the first few moments of the ride floating in the peaceful Blue Bayou, past the fireflies and a man in a rocking chair, while the sounds of a banjo play from inside.
Soon after being warned by an ominous skull that “dead men tell no tales”, guests descend a waterfall via two drops in quick succession. This lands them in Dead Man’s Cove, where skeletons of pirates are stranded on a beach, sitting at a table, and even steering a ship through a storm.
The grotto opens up into Pirate’s largest set, where pirates aboard a large ship called the Wicked Wench are firing cannons that splash up in the water around the ride vehicle. Then, guests enter the town, which is designed as a Caribbean town of the period.
A Brief History: Walt Disney’s Original Design of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland
In an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color1, Walt Disney describes the attraction in Disneyland as taking guests “back into the past into the days of the pirates, you know, where the whole Caribbean area was full of pirates and they were always sacking towns and things.”
Disney goes on to outline the guest’s experience through the ride. He speaks about a scene in which the pirates dunk the mayor in a well, “trying to force him to reveal the hiding places of the town treasure”. Then, Disney describes the infamous auction scene where the pirates are auctioning off the town’s women as brides.
Disney then talks about what he calls the climactic scene – “we set the place on fire, we have the audience trapped down in this flaming city…”. To escape the burning town, the guests ascend back up the waterfall into the calm bayou. During the ascent, there is a final scene of several pirates trying to push their treasure up the waterfall.
Pirates of the Caribbean’s Well-Designed Interest Curve Keeps Guests Entertained Throughout the Ride
The genius about the story design of Pirates of the Caribbean is that its interest curve is textbook perfect for a successful entertainment experience.
Interest curves are graphs that chart an audience’s interest over time in the story that is being told. In entertainment experiences, these stories are made of moments that hold the guest’s interest with varying degrees of power. It’s important that there are variations to avoid a flat experience, and what’s more interesting is that there is such a thing as a good interest curve that has been proved time and time again with successful entertainment experiences.
What Makes a Good Interest Curve?
A good interest curve looks something like this2:
A – Audience enters with a level of expectation
B – “The hook”, close to the beginning, the point where the guest’s interest is spiked by something that grabs their attention
C through G – Increasing peaks as the experience gets more interesting and the audience becomes more invested, but allowing for rising and falling to keep momentum
H – “The climax”, the highest point of tension and excitement
I – Resolution, or denouement, when the story is wrapped up and the guest leaves satisfied, hopefully wanting more.
Why are Interest Curves Important?
Using interest curves is a great way for designers to ensure they capture and sustain the audience’s interest in an experience from start to finish. If an experience feels bland or boring, charting an interest curve can help designers figure out which part of needs to be fixed, or whether elements can be rearranged in the sequence to make the product more engaging.
The beauty of this interest curve is that it works across all types of entertainment experiences.
A classic film example, Raiders of the Lost Ark:
A Shakespeare play, Macbeth:
Recipe for a smash hit pop song (basically any one):
And the pièce de résistance, the interest curve of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride:
This interest curve shows how well-thought-out the design of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride is. Following this interest curve, the ride manages to grab the audience’s attention with the two drops down the waterfall, and continues delivering a series of interest peaks until the climactic scene of the blazing town.
Encouraging Return Visits to Pirates of the Caribbean
Because Pirates is a ride experience, it’s also likely that a repeat guest’s interest points could vary each time, depending on what side of the boat they’re on, who they’re with, or what they notice, which adds more layers to the experience while maintaining a good interest curve.
These slightly different interest curves keep the guest’s experiences of the ride fresh and exciting each time, while the overall structure still guarantees a satisfying entertainment experience.
It is said that Walt Disney liked the idea that there was a lot of overlapping dialogue and scenes within the Pirates, comparing it to a cocktail party. Hearing pieces of conversation here and there, and picking up only fragments of the story each time, he thought, would encourage guests to return for another cruise through the Blue Bayou.
Speaking of story, there’s more! In my next post, I’ll discuss the evolution of storytelling over the 50-plus year history of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Until then, drink up, me hearties, yo ho!
A Quick Postscript on Interest Curves
Interest curves are an incredible tool for designers and creators of all kinds of entertainment, from video games, to theme park rides, to blog posts. I hope I’ve been successful with the interest curve of this one. 🙂
- Disney Parks. “Hear the Tale ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ From Walt Disney.” Uploaded to YouTube, 14 September 2011. Web. 3 May 2020.
- Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. 2nd ed., CRC Press, 2015. p. 282-284.