In every Disney ride, there is a strong thread of storytelling running through the entire experience. After all, Disney is a company built on story, stemming from its roots in the film and animation industries. Its theme parks are best in class because of this focus, and indeed, each Disney ride’s primary purpose is to tell the guest a story.
Pirates of the Caribbean opened in March 1967, three months after Walt Disney’s death, and is the last ride he personally oversaw. In its fifty-plus years of operation, it has probably undergone more changes that have affected its story than any Disney ride.
In my last post, I wrote about the techniques used to capture and sustain the audience’s interest. In this second part, I’m going to explore the evolution of the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride’s storytelling in this article, with special attention to our favourite redhead.
The Beginnings of the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride
Pirates of the Caribbean was originally conceived as a walk-through museum of wax figures under New Orleans Square, depicting the history of pirates.
However, multiple successes coming off the 1964 New York World’s Fair changed the plans for the pirate attraction. The debut of “it’s a small world” proved that boat rides in an attraction would be well-received. And the lifelike figures within “Carousel of Progress” and “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” further increased Disney’s interest and investment in audio-animatronics.
Thus, Pirates of the Caribbean was reimagined as an immersive dark ride housed in its own show building outside the monorail’s perimeter of Disneyland. Before long, Imagineers were hard at work bringing to (audio-animatronic) life the comical pirates in Marc Davis’ drawings.
Telling the Story of “a Pirate’s Life for Me”… in Reverse?
Though we may never know the singular storyline running through the ride (or if there is one), my favourite interpretation is that Pirates of the Caribbean loosely tells a story in reverse.
The purest version of this can be found is in the original ride’s design. This would segment the ride into three separate times:
1. The Blue Bayou – present day
After boarding a boat at Laffite’s landing, guests float by a man sitting in a rocking chair on a porch, smoking a pipe. Some say that this is an elderly Jean Laffite, reminiscing about his days as a pirate.
It is also telling that the circular structure of the ride takes guests away from the present time, and returns them to it back up the waterfall at the end of the ride.
2. Dead Man’s Cove – the past, end of the era of pirates
The transition of dropping down the waterfall brings the guests into the world of pirates, and can be interpreted as a descent into the past. The grotto shows pirates in skeleton form doing various activities, many with layers of cobwebs over them, as if they are frozen in time.
Notably, there is a painting hanging in the “Crew’s Quarters” depicting a particular redheaded female pirate. This original piece of art by Disney Legend Marc Davis, one of Walt’s collaborators on the ride, is named “A Portrait of Things to Come” – foreshadowing, perhaps?
3. The Town – further back in the past, the heyday of pirates
After exiting the cove, guests seem to go even further back in time into what Walt Disney calls in an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, “the days of the pirates”1.
From here, the story progresses linearly. There’s the cannon-firing of the large ship known as the Wicked Wench, then the scenes of the town.
Disney describes two scenes of note here. First, the pirates dunk the mayor Carlos in a well, and try to get him to tell them where the town’s treasure is hidden. Then, there’s the auction scene, where pirates auction off the ladies of the town as brides.
Even in the early miniatures, there is a redhead who stands out in the line of women, wearing a fancy dress and hat, not looking displeased about being auctioned off to the highest bidder. In the original version of the ride, the pirates shout, “We wants the redhead!”, and over the years she became a fan favourite.
In this interpretation, the redhead in the aptly-named painting in Dead Man’s Cove is the same redhead that was kidnapped and auctioned off as a bride in the town scene. I’ve always liked the idea that she became a masterful pirate, and that this part of the story was a little secret “easter egg” between me and the Imagineers, as it’s not immediately obvious in the ride.
Finally, in the climactic scene, the pirates set the town on fire. As guests escape back up the waterfall, there’s a last scene of pirates trying to push their treasure up the waterfall.
All in all, the story structure makes sense. Guests descend into the past, and witness a series of scenes depicting pirates plundering the town. The pirates, who succeed in finding the town’s treasure, eventually set the whole town ablaze, and the audience returns to reality the same way they came.
Changes to the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride
Over the years, things changed in the Pirates ride. In 1997, the women the pirates chase through the town were given trays of food, and the “pooped pirate” who was bragging about a “shy little wench” hiding in a barrel behind him became the “gluttonous pirate” and the girl was replaced with a cat.
In 2006, in response to the highly successful 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl movie, characters from the movie were added to the Pirates attraction. Captain Barbossa is now seen captaining the Wicked Wench. And the story is no longer that the pirates pillage the town and find the town’s treasure. Instead, Captain Jack steals the treasure from another pirate, and is seen amongst his stash at the end of the ride.
2018: Updates to the Auction Scene and to the Role of the Redhead
But it was the 2018 update, which switched the auction scene to one where the redhead is a pirate auctioning off the town’s goods, that got me. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s awesome to portray a powerful female pirate instead of a bride auction scene. But I’d always thought that the redhead was powerful, that she had it in her to become the pirate in the painting hanging in Dead Man’s Cove.
The redhead, or Redd, as she’s called now – she’s a face character you can meet in New Orleans Square2 – lacks a progression through the story that she once had, though understandably, that was to a very small percentage of guests. With that in mind, it was the right move to update the scene.
The redhead will always be special to me because I always saw her as a pirate, and I’m glad everyone sees her in her colours now. But it doesn’t mean I won’t miss the nuance of her story, the little wink or secret I could share with my friends after the ride.
From a design perspective, finding easter eggs that not many people notice made me feel special, like I was sharing a secret with the original designers of the ride. This is the reason for the success of Imagineers’ tradition of placing “hidden Mickeys” throughout the Disney parks.
Most of the characters you see in Pirates (though many share the same audio-animatronic face) are one-offs. It would be nice to see more of the redhead’s story, to get more of a sense of progression with her like you do with Captain Jack Sparrow, who appears multiple times through the ride.
Pirates of the Caribbean Story Influences, from Ride to Film to Ride
The “true” story of the redhead is muddled. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, a feisty redhead named Scarlett in a similar necklace and dress to the one in the ride slaps Captain Jack around the face when he lands in Tortuga. It’s likely that filmmakers thought to put this reference to the redhead in the movies as a quick nod to the ride, just like they put the scene with the jailed pirates and the dog with the key.
But I’ve always thought that the redhead from the ride deserved more, that she ended up more than a Tortuga wench with a bone to pick with Captain Jack. Because also in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, a young lady is kidnapped by pirates and fights her way out of her predicament, eventually becoming one of the baddest pirates on the seas.
Though it’s a pretty generic storyline, I like to think that Elizabeth Swann carries the spirit of who I saw as the ride’s redhead, and that, in a way, a version of her story lives on.
Stories Belong to the Person Experiencing Them
All this is speculation and theorising, of course. There is no “right” interpretation to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and there likely is no “true” story of the redhead. These are things left up to interpretation, as they should be. It has let me figure out what the story and characters meant to me over the years.
Whatever the Imagineers and Walt Disney intended is only part of what comes across. The rest is up to the guest, and the interpretation of the Pirates ride is not the same for everyone.
Stories change over time, and what makes the Disney rides fascinating and layered is their constant evolution. To understand and fully appreciate a longstanding attraction’s story, such as Pirates of the Caribbean’s, is to understand its rich history.
As Walt Disney said,
Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.
- Disney Parks. “Hear the Tale ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ From Walt Disney.” Uploaded to YouTube, 14 September 2011. Web. 3 May 2020.
- Ramirez, Michael. “Redd Pirate Arrr-riving June 8 at Disneyland Park.” Disneyland Resort. Disney Parks Blog, 4 June 2018. Web. 5 May 2020.