One of the best parts of writing the volumes of A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World is the research that I do. In college, I worked at the reference desk of the university library, helping students, community members, and professors on research, utilizing the databases, microfilms, microfiche, and stacks to find the information they needed for papers, essays, and monographs. It was a fascinating job and one that has definitely helped me in finding the information I needed to complete my first two volumes of my book.
However, through my research, I've learned the different layers of history that went into the attractions--things that Imagineers didn't have to include. While a teacher who went through four-and-a-half years of history instruction in college, there was a lot about different attractions' details that I was completely unaware of. Take, for example, Pirates of the Caribbean: I would not have known any different if the buildings in the attraction were simple stucco with red clay tile roofs. But Imagineers didn't stop there: they layered detail upon detail to ensure the accuracy and complete story immersion for guests aboard the attraction. This has created a deeper experience for me as a resort guest. Now, while I'm a total nerd (and not just a Disney or history nerd, either), I don't spend the tennish minutes aboard the ride vehicle drifting through the Caribbean waters saying to myself, "Hey, that's Spanish Gothic architecture!" or "What a lovely bellcote!" However, possessing an understanding of these things allows me to place myself in the specific space and time the attraction takes place, to, just for a few minutes, suspend my disbelief and fully enjoy the attraction.
Below, you'll find the first part of my chapter on Pirates of the Caribbean from A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Vol. 1. My hope is that this will give you a feel for the level of depth and research that went into the writing of these books and will inspire you, if not to read what I've put together, to do some of your own research to enrich your experience at the Walt Disney World parks and resorts.
My first book, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Vol. 1
“Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!”
These nine words constitute one of the most popular attraction soundtracks for any Disney guest at four Disney resorts around the world. Guests board twenty-four passenger boats, sail through a series of caves, past a ship battling with a Spanish fort, and through a Caribbean town being ransacked, and eventually burned, by a rowdy group of flamboyantly dressed, earring-wearing, drunk, pirates speaking the stereotypical vocabulary of legends.
The idea for a pirate-themed attraction began early in the developmental stages for Walt Disney’s first theme park, Disneyland, which opened in 1955. Due to the success of the Walt Disney Productions film, Treasure Island starring Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton as Long John Silver in 1950, Walt decided he wanted some sort of attraction where guests could walk through a wax museum depicting pirates engaging in different roguish situations, such as ransacking a town. Because of the complexity and evolution of the attraction, the attraction did not open with the park in October of 1955. Shortly after the park’s opening to the public, Disney and his Imagineers began working on a series of pavilions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair for companies such as Pepsi, General Electric, and the state of Illinois (which would feature attractions such as ‘it’s a small world’, Carousel of Progress, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, respectively). Throughout this process, the Imagineers developed what became known as Audio Animatronics, a form of robotic figure that looked and behaved like a human, while at the same time, able to perform for hours on end. Disney decided quickly to evolve his wax museum pirate attraction into some sort of ride-through attraction with Audio Animatronic pirates, giving thousands of Disney guests the classic attraction that exists today.
But how accurate is this beloved attraction? Are the events, locations, and characters true to history or based heavily on the myths of Blackbeard, Davy Jones, and Long John Silver?
The story behind Disney theme park attractions begins before guests even step foot into the attraction building. This is no different when guests approach the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park. Pirates of the Caribbean is located in Adventureland, one of seven themed “lands” or areas of Walt Disney World’s first theme park, which opened in 1971. On the border of where Adventureland and Frontierland meet stands the area once known as Caribbean Plaza, complete with light brown stucco buildings roofed with red clay shingles. However, the focal point of this area is the Pirates of the Caribbean show building, dominated by a tall clock tower. In 2006, shortly after the release of the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the ride was refurbished, featuring the addition of elements from the film. A mast featuring a black sail and the skeleton of a pirate was added to the front of the building, while a banner quoting some lyrics from the ride’s well-known soundtrack was painted on the building.
The façade of the building is loosely based on El Castillo de San Juan del Morro, a Spanish fort that dominates the coastline of Puerto Rico just outside the capital of San Juan. Also known as El Castillo del Morro, the fort was built in 1539 by the Spanish conquerors of Puerto Rico and was used to protect the city of San Juan and its harbor from sea bound attackers. Over the next few hundred years, the fort and its walls were improved upon, adding thickness to the walls and, eventually, a lighthouse. The exterior architecture of the show building and the design of the buildings throughout the ride is consistent with the Gothic architecture of seventeenth and eighteenth century Spanish Caribbean colonies.
While El Castillo del Morro is located on the island of Puerto Rico, the architecture on the exterior of the Pirates show building and that of the sets in each of the show scenes is most consistent with the Spanish colonial architecture found on the islands of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. For example, transverse mason arches are used throughout the façade and queue of the attraction. A transverse mason arch is an archway where blocks are arranged in an arch, running from one wall or column to another. The block at the tip of the arch is situated at a ninety-degree angle to the blocks adjacent to the columns or walls, with the blocks between the edges and tip are tilted at varying degrees.
Another form of architecture that is featured in the attraction and consistent with Spanish colonial architecture during the 1700s is the nave arcade entryway. A nave arcade is a stretch of a room lined by columns linking arches. This architectural feature was often used to make a room appear larger than it truly was. The nave arcade architecture can be found in the open-air entrance of the attraction queue, leading up to the actual entrance of the building. Large columns hold up the ceiling, supporting arches, and leading up to the large double doors of the fortress.
Also common in colonial Cuban architecture was the decorative roofing and roof lines. Many of the important buildings (such as churches, palaces, and other governmental buildings) had roofs with red clay shingles, which helped keep the interior of the buildings cool during hot days. Beneath the clay shingles were long timber rafters spaced a few feet apart. Both of these architectural features can be found on the exterior of the show building.
Below the roofline of clay tiles, the ceiling would be held up by timber rafters that provide the structural support.
Sitting just above the entrance to the open-air arcade of the queue, perched on the roof, is an aesthetic (and functional) feature known as a bellcote, or in Spanish, as an espadaña. A bellcote was usually found on churches, missions, and forts, and could feature up to three large bells used to signal different events. The bellcote sitting atop the queue is not functional, of course, but rather elicits the colonial Spanish architectural feel of the attraction.
The large clock tower that stands guard before the entrance of the queue is of distinctly colonial Dominican design. Rising to twenty feet and capped with a pyramidal prism, this rectangular tower was often used as a part of church and mission architecture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These towers rarely had clocks in them, however, but instead housed large bells, similar to the bellcote, to signal parishioners and villagers of different events.
Note the columns, arches, decorative clay tiles, and bellcote perched atop the entrance (image from early 2000s).
The architecture of building facades throughout the ride are also consistent with designs being used throughout seventeenth, and eighteenth century Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Take, for example, the scene where guests first see the landing party dunking the mayor in the well, trying to find out the whereabouts of the town’s treasure and Jack Sparrow. The exterior of the buildings are made of a stucco material, consistent with architecture throughout the Caribbean during the Gothic period. The buildings are roofed with red clay tiles, which were used throughout Cuba. On the ground floor of the building behind the pirates dunking the mayor, arches crowned with transverse masonry are used once again. The windows of the building are recessed, and have sash shutters, which were prevalent with architecture throughout the Dominican Republic. An example of the evidence of sash shutters in this scene is where the brave wife of Carlos (the town mayor) leans out of the open window above the well and yells at her husband, “Be brave Carlos, don’t be cheekin!” Balconies stretch along the upper stories of the buildings, lined by metal banisters and railings, which was used in Puerto Rican architecture.
A second example of Gothic architecture in the Spanish Caribbean colonies that is accurate throughout the attraction is the “Wench-for-a-Bride Auction” scene. Once again, guests find red clay tiles used for roofing behind the women waiting to be auctioned off. Sash shutters can be found covering the windows on the second floor of the buildings in this scene, as well. Across the canal from the auction sit various pirates, attempting to bid for the potential brides. Behind the pirates, once again, are transverse mason arches, stone blocks situated in a way to evenly distribute the weight and pressure of the heavy stone walls. Balconies with decorative metal railings found in Puerto Rico are used here, as well, with sash shutters covering the doorways opening onto the balconies.
There are other architectural details that are historically accurate throughout the attraction. Covered walkways native to the Dominican Republic stretch through the town in the scene where the pirates are chasing chickens and being chased by rolling-pin-wielding women. Heavy, rectangular towers tipped with domes and supposedly housing bells, also native to the Dominican, sporadically rise behind buildings throughout the town. Sash shuttered windows, covered public walkways, balconies beneath overhanging eaves, red clay tiled roofs, and transverse mason arches can be found throughout the scene where the drunken pirates sing to the guests while the town burns to the ground around them.
Whether it is the way arches are lined with stones set in a way to equally distribute the weight and pressure of the stucco walls, the wooden sash coverings over windows, the red clay tiles on the roofs, or the balconies that hang over the show scenes, the architecture throughout the interior of the attraction reflects historical accuracy of the Spanish Caribbean colonies during the Gothic period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Queue and Loading
The queue of Pirates of the Caribbean contains highly detailed scenery and set pieces that transport guests back in time. After passing through the open air nave arcade entryway of the attraction entrance, guests pass through heavy wooden double doors and into the Spanish fort. The queue is lit by small lanterns placed sporadically. While these lanterns are powered by electricity, during the seventeen hundreds, these passageways would be lit by candlelight and torches, creating a similar dimness throughout the halls. Due to modern fire safety laws, real fire torches and candlelight was not used to brighten these dark passageways.
Not surprisingly, transverse mason archways are used throughout the passageways, keeping the architecture of the attraction consistent. The dark and dankness of the queue, while maintained by the modern use of dim lighting and air conditioning, creates the sense of being deep within the Spanish fort. In fact, during the Spanish colonial period, the Castillo del Morro had walls that were up to eighteen feet thick, preventing attackers from being able to blast cannon balls through the walls or easily dig their way through the walls and into the forts.
Similar to medieval castles, different portions of forts had different uses. The queue winds its way through numerous rooms of the fort. One section that the line runs through is the armory. This room contains piles of cannon balls and numerous cannons. Some of the cannons are pointed out of holes in the walls to ward off invaders. Most armories would be deep within the fort and beneath ground level to prevent enemy fire from entering the room. If a cannon ball from enemy fire had entered the hole in the wall and landed among barrels of gun powder, the resulting explosion would have blown the entire room apart, exposing the interior of the fort to the outside and allowing invaders to enter the fort. However, colonial forts did have rooms similar to this near the exterior wall to repel invaders.
Cannons like these in the fort's armory pointed outward to ward off any enemies that may approach.
Another portion of the fort that the queue passes through is the dungeon. This dungeon presents some historical inaccuracies. The first inaccuracy is its position in the fort. The dungeon is located adjacent to the exterior wall of the fort, where the queue “exits” the fort and into the “town” where guests load onto the ride vehicles. Dungeons would also be towards the middle of the fort and below ground level. If a dungeon was on the exterior wall, and a cannon ball crashed through the wall, it would create a hole allowing prisoners to escape. Also, a dungeon on the exterior wall would allow prisoners to escape through the windows of the cell, if the prisoner was lucky enough to saw through the iron bars over the windows. Another historical inaccuracy of the dungeon is the position of the prisoners within the cell. One of the well-known scenes of the queue is that of the prisoners’ skeletons seated at a chess board. Instead of allowing prisoners to move freely throughout the cell, prisoners would instead be chained to the walls, either hanging by their wrists or thumbs, their feet not touching the ground. However, to add humor to the attraction and in order to keep its family-friendly status that Disney is famous for, the attraction’s creators opted to place the skeletons at the famous, unwinnable chess board.
Upon “exiting” the fort, guests find themselves in a small port town through which a canal runs inland. Because the main form of transportation of goods during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries involved shipping, towns would be located along rivers, streams, and canals. When goods were produced, they would be put onto canal boats, called bateaux (French for “boats”, bateau is singular form, pronounced “bah-toe”), and shipped toward the port, a small town located where the river meets the ocean. From there, the cargo would be unloaded from the smaller boat and onto a ship bound for the Americas, Europe, or other island colonies.
A bateau was a shallow, flat-bottomed boat that is pointed at both ends. By making the boat shallow and flat-bottomed, colonists were able to load heavy cargo into the boats. Bateaux could also carry between one and twenty men, depending on the size of the boat. The average size of the bateau was approximately six feet in width and forty-five to sixty feet long, with an approximate depth of three feet. Bateaux were moved either by the rowing of occupants or by floating slowly on the river’s currents until anchored at a destination. Bateaux could also be used to carry travelers up- or down-river to explore, or in the case of pirates, to maraud and terrorize.
Interestingly, the ride vehicles for the attraction are modified versions of bateaux. Comparing the historical bateau to the ride vehicles in Pirates of the Caribbean, we find many similarities and a few very minor differences. The ride vehicles are also shallow, flat-bottomed boats ending in a point at both ends. The ride vehicles are able to carry heavy loads of cargo (passengers). The ride vehicles are approximately six feet wide and are about thirty feet long, with a depth of about three feet. The ride vehicle bateaux also float with the current of the ride path. While historical bateaux could carry approximately twenty men, the ride vehicles can carry up to twenty-four passengers, with four passengers in each row.
Immediately prior to loading on the ride vehicles, guests pass a cave, situated to their right. Guests can’t see deep into the cave, but rather can see flickering torchlight and hear the sounds of someone digging in the sand for treasure. This is also somewhat accurate. While burying treasure was not as prevalent as treasure being sunken in ships, there are historical records of some pirates burying their treasure. One example is that of the Puerto Rican pirate, Roberto Cofresí, who, after giving a portion of his treasure to the needy of his village and spending a portion of his own share, buried the rest in caves for safe keeping until his return.
After boarding their bateaux ride vehicles, guests pass through a series of caves, through a “waterfall” from which Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest appears and warns the guests. Because the forts along the coasts of Spanish colonies were built high up on rocky cliffs, caves leading to underground rivers and harbors were real, but were a rare find.
To read more about Pirates of the Caribbean and other Magic Kingdom attractions, pick up a copy of A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Vol. 1 here!
Read about Spaceship Earth, Storybook Circus, the Country Bear Jamboree and more by picking up a copy of A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Vol. 2 here!