Saturday, September 17, 2016

Imagineers Remember Creating Pirates of the Caribbean

By Keith Mahne

The talking skull in Pirates of the Caribbean has warned guests that "Dead Men tell no tales" millions of times over the years. The poor mayor has been dunked countless times (and still hasn't drowned). The auctioneer has been trying to unload the same plump young wench on the same six pirates hundreds of times a day, 365 days a year with no takers. And those same six pirates have been wanting the "red 'ed" without success for almost 50 years. Day after day, year after year, the pirates have been singing and pillaging and plundering and kidnapping and extorting and marauding, much to the delight of the thousands of Disneyland guests who line up daily to see the less-than-daring exploits of these fun-loving scalawags. In fact, Pirates of the Caribbean has emerged as perhaps the most successful attraction ever built at a Disney Theme Park and it's all thanks to the Imagineers. In today's new article, we'll hear from some of those very same Imagineers who have shared their memories over the years on creating one of the best Disney attractions that has been exciting guests with almost 50 years of plundering fun...

Guests wait in line to ride the new Pirates of the Caribbean, 1968

Who could have guessed that Pirates would have such an impact when it opened on March 18, 1967? Certainly not its creators. "You always hope that anything you build will be a big hit," Marc Davis, the principal designer of Pirates, once recalled. "And I think we had a feeling that this one would be a success. But to be as popular now as when it opened? That was too much to hope for back then."

Marc Davis working on concept art for Pirates

Pirates of the Caribbean has shown and continues to show remarkable staying power. So much staying power, in fact, that not only has it been a Disneyland favorite for almost 50 years, it has also spawned duplicates in the Magic Kingdom at WDW, Tokyo Disneyland in Japan, Disneyland Paris, and, most recently, in Shanghai Disneyland. So what's the hook? Is it a prevailing reflection of the deep, dark recesses of the human character — a childhood fantasy that people have of leading the devil-may-care life of a marauding buccaneer?

An up-close view of the Pirates audio-animatronics

Leota Toombs puts some finishing make-up on a pirate

When he first began working on the project, Marc Davis had his own doubts about the moral nature of a pirate attraction. "I thought, none of this is 'Disney'," he once told Randy Bright for the book Disneyland: Inside Story. "When I started reading everything I could find on pirates, I found that few of them were ever killed in sea battles like we'd always heard. Most of them lost their lives by venereal disease picked up in brothels."

Alice Davis, Marc's wife and famous costume designer for Disney, is seen here working on the attraction costumes

Blaine Gibson sculpting a figure for the Pirates model

You are probably thinking after reading Marc's comment that this sounds like just the kind of stuff on which to base a rollicking attraction for a family theme park. But Davis had a history of adding his comic touch to seemingly serious subjects throughout his time at Disney. He was, after all, the animator who gave Cruella de Vil her overboard personality in "One Hundred and One Dalmatians," and he was the designer who lent a humorous touch to such Disneyland attractions as the Enchanted Tiki Room and Jungle Cruise.

Marc Davis working on Pirates concept art

Imagineer Bill Justice studies prints of an actor performing the auctioneer pirate that will be used for the animation of the animatronic pirate

Realizing this, Walt turned to Davis in the early 1960s for help on his pirate attraction. Several designers had already come up with a host of concepts, including one that featured a "Rogues Gallery" wax museum as seen below in this early concept art...

Early Pirates of the Caribbean concept art when the attraction was envisioned as a walk through wax museum

"Walt gave me the assignment of making an attraction where people would see these pirates ransacking a city," Marc Davis once said. "That was about all the direction he gave me. So I designed this walk through pirate show. I filled the walls of my office with all these sketches and concepts, but the funny thing was, Walt never seemed interested in them. He'd come in and talk with me about pirates, but he wouldn't look at the storyboards. It annoyed me because I knew some of my ideas were pretty good, but I think Walt didn't look at them because he knew the walk through idea wasn't right."

Marc Davis, Walt Disney, and Blaine Gibson working on a audio-animatronic for Pirates of the Caribbean

WDI sculptor Blaine Gibson examines some of his newly created pirate heads

It was the 1964-65 New York World's Fair that convinced Walt to proceed with Pirates. One of the reasons for his renewed interests was the success at the Fair of It's a Small World, which utilized a boat system for moving guests through the ride. Another was the advances that had been made in audio-animatronic figures that allowed for increased movement and startling realism, most notably with the figure of America's president, Abraham Lincoln, seen in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

Walt sits beside his new audio-animatronic Lincoln

Both of these developments were crucial to Pirates, which now had the technology to realize Walt's vision. With the talents of Davis, background artist and layout designer Claude Coats, sculptor Blaine Gibson, special effects wizard Yale Gracey and costume designer Alice Davis (who is also Marc's wife), Pirates of the Caribbean quickly began to take shape. But there was still the problem of how to approach the show. Would it be a continuous story? Or would the attraction be a series of vignettes? According to Davis, Walt had definite ideas.

Imagineers Blaine Gibson, George Snowden and Marc Davis work on a pirate sculpture

Bob Sewell and a fellow Imagineer work on a dog who will soon be part of the show

"He didn't like the idea of telling stories in this medium," Marc Davis once recalled. "It's not a storytelling medium (in the sense of a movie). But it does give you experiences. You experience the idea of pirates. You don't see a story that starts at the beginning and then ends up with 'By golly, they got the dirty dog.' It wasn't that way. It was scene after scene, and that really works out very well in that attraction. People see it over and over again and they always discover something new every time."

Marc Davis with an early version of the Pirate Parrot animatronic

Imagineers Dave Schweninger (left), John Franke (center) and Roger Broggie, Jr (right) installing one of the audio-animatronic figures

The idea that people would see Pirates of the Caribbean again and again is one that Walt continued to impress upon his designers. It was why he told them not to worry about filling scenes with too much detail or overlapping dialogue. "Most of the figures were very simply animated because we didn't truthfully know how much we should put into these things," Marc once recalled. "The simplicity was fine because you are moving and you had to have things you could 'read' (understand visually) quickly and enjoy and are not confusing. Then you can move on to another idea. But one figure that has some of the subtleties of the Mr. Lincoln figure is the Auctioneer. He has all the lip purses and spread mouth that Mr. Lincoln has. But then all of a sudden I realized that you're in a boat and you won't see all those things. I mentioned that to Walt and he said, 'You know, each time you go through — and people will go through many times — this is going to be something they haven't seen before.'"

Marc and Alice Davis with the Auctioneer animatronic

Another who learned that lesson was Xavier "X" Atencio, who wrote the script for Pirates of the Caribbean and gave his voice to the talking skull that presides over the first down ramp at Disneyland. "We mocked up the Auction Scene in a warehouse at WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) with all the figures working and the dialogue," Atencio once stated. "We rigged up a dolly and pushed Walt through at the estimated time that the boats would be going through. You could hear all this noise from this side and that side, and I said, 'Sorry, Walt, I don't think you can hear this.' And he said, 'It's just like going to a cocktail party. You tune in on this conversation and then you tune in on that one over there. Every time you come in you'll hear something completely different.' I thought, 'Why didn't I think of that?"

X Atencio and Claude Coats make some final touch-ups on the Pirate animatronics

Like Marc Davis, Atencio began his Disney career at the Disney Studio as an animator before being asked by Walt to join Imagineering in 1965. "I got a call from Walt and he wanted me to do a script for the pirate ride," Atencio once remembered. " I'd never done any scripting before. I'd worked in the Story Department, mostly as a sketch artist. But I said, 'Oh, all right, I'll give it a try.' So I put on my pirate hat, dug out a bunch of pirate books and watched 'Treasure Island,' trying to get the feel of pirate jargon. The first scene I did was the Auctioneer Scene. I went through the model and figured out what these guys would be saying. When I was done, I took it over to Walt and he said, 'Fine, go ahead, keep going.' I loosened up after that and went with it."

X Atencio poses for a photo with Walt

Scripting wasn't the only new skill Atencio picked up while working on Pirates. He also decided to try his hand at songwriting. "I had an idea for the lyrics and a kind of a little melody for a song for the ride," recalls Atencio, " but I thought Walt would probably get the Sherman Brothers to do it. So after one meeting, I said, 'I got a little idea for a song for the pirate ride, Walt.' He said, 'Let's hear it.' I half recited and half sang it and he said, 'That's great! Get George Bruns to do the music.' That was my first attempt at any lyric writing."

X Atencio and George Bruns are seen here finalizing the famous song "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me)"

And a very successful one at that — although there is one little problem with "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me)." Everyone remembers the melody and the refrain, but no one remembers any of the verses. Even its author. "It's such a play on words and they come so fast, that even I couldn't sing the song without looking at a lyric sheet," Atencio once admitted. "But it's nice to know it's become so well known. I was down in Laguna Beach one time several years ago and there were some kids in a little dinghy out there on the water singing, 'Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.' That made me feel good."

X Atencio stands in front of his Imagineering office

Davis and Atencio were both aware of the seamy underside to a pirate attraction, but both felt guests would get into the harmless spirit of the ride and forget or ignore its more ominous implications. "I tried to add humor wherever I could," Marc Davis once recalled. "Everything was treated with a light, comic touch."

Imagineer Ken O'Brien programs a Pirate's animated head

WED Imagineers working on a pirate's head

X Atencio once said that other measures were taken as well. "We made a big banner, 'Auctioneer — Take a Wench for a Bride,' at the Auction Scene to get the point across that these guys weren't 'taking advantage' of the ladies. They were auctioning them off to be brides. We also had the girl chasing the guy in the Chase Scene to try to get the point across that this was harmless fun. We hoped that would get us off the hook. It seems to have worked."

Peter Kermode, a WDI sculptor, is seen here creating one of the "wenches" for the Auction Scene

Imagineer Roger Broggie checking the metal structure of a pirate audio-animatronic

Imagineering Legend Wathel Rogers working on the 1960s computer system that controls the audio-animatronic pirates

As it turned out, Pirates of the Caribbean was the last attraction in which Walt Disney was personally involved. The attraction opened in the spring of 1967, a few short months after his death. "Walt saw bits and pieces of it being built," Marc Davis once stated. "I did some walk throughs with him down at Disneyland, but he died before we got very far." Still, Davis felt Pirates is something Walt would have been very proud of.

"He had confidence in us," Marc Davis once remembered, "perhaps even more than we had in ourselves. It wasn't perfect, of course. I don't like the way it ends, that you have to ride up that lift. That's why we changed the thing in Florida. I like the idea that when the attraction is over, you're off the thing and then you're on your own riding up a speed ramp. In Disneyland, the ride's over and you have to go up, bumpety, bumpety, and you have to see people coming in. You're taken a little bit of the spark of the ride away. But then, we didn't really think about it (the ending) at Disneyland. We were just trying to get the ride system to work."

Disneyland guests enjoying the brand new Pirates attraction

Despite this shortcoming, Pirates of the Caribbean succeeded beyond the designers' wildest dreams. X Atencio once stated something that I believe reflects the feelings of us all: "I'm amazed at how, after all these years, the attraction is still holding up. I think it's absolutely great!"


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true everyday.


  1. When ever we go to Disneyland that is the first ride we go on. Thanks for a great story about the ride. Also thanks for sharing the magic.

  2. Disneyland's Pirates had always had a dream-like quality for me. The opening scenes are like falling asleep, with elements of the story slowly manifesting themselves as you drift into sleep. The first two drops then become a metaphor for falling completely in to the dream, and the final lift is like waking up. To me, it is a classic example of the artists actually realizing a much deeper experience than they were consciously attempting at the time.

  3. Terrific article about my favorite attraction! Minor correction, though: For years, the two circular chase scenes indeed had the men chasing the women. I think it was changed in the '90s.

    1. That's correct BUT the article doesn't say that there wasn't a time when the men were chasing the women, the quote by X Atencio simply states that the attraction ALSO had a part where one of the women was chasing a pirate to add a sense of humor during the time when there were pirates chasing the women. So, just to clarify, there was always a part where a female was chasing a male pirate with a broom before they changed it to all the women chasing pirates.

  4. As a DACS tech in 1973, because I had the night shift, with not much to do, and due to my electronics wiring experience, I was selected by Dave Inglish (who came out from MAPO to supervise the Audio-animatronics install) to wire Pirates electronic racks in DACS and Audio Central. I just happened to be in PoC the night that they were testing the boats with sandbags, and when they decided to try humans, I got to ride in first boat, which was quite a thrill!