By Kimi Yoshino, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 19, 2006
Purist fans of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride are wishing they could force company officials to walk the plank for doing the unthinkable.
The classic attraction, which turns 40 next year, is getting an overhaul timed to coincide with the movie premiere of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," the second in a trilogy of films starring Johnny Depp. When the popular ride reopens June 26, it will look a lot more like the movie series that it inspired, complete with swashbuckler Jack Sparrow and his nemesis Capt. Barbossa.
Internet message boards have been in mutiny for months, with fans debating whether Disney is taking corporate synergy and marketing too far — and that's saying a lot for a company that capitalizes on just about every character tie-in imaginable.
"If it ain't broke, why fix it?" grumbled fan Candy Richter, 39, who grew up riding Pirates of the Caribbean. "I think it's really lamentable when society feels that they need to go back and adjust their pop culture icons to fit whatever new spawns out…. I don't think people are going in Haunted Mansion and wondering where the Eddie Murphy character is."
In a break from its ride-opening tradition, Disney is not giving any sneak peeks, not even to park employees, until after the movie's celebrity-studded premiere at the Anaheim theme park Saturday. The movie is set for wide release July 7.
Disney is banking that fans, even the die-hards, will not be disappointed.
"I cannot imagine how anybody can see this attraction and walk off and say, 'Boy, they did something they shouldn't have,' " said Disney Imagineer Kathy Rogers, who is overseeing the ride's creative changes at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Florida. "It really has strengthened the classic."
Rogers said ride designers had tried to seamlessly add characters into the attraction in the same way that movie scriptwriters adopted elements of the ride. (Remember the dog holding the keys to the jail cells in the 2003 movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"?)
The ride's story line has been tweaked. Instead of pirates ransacking a Spanish seaport town in search of gold, they're now trying to capture Jack Sparrow and beat him to the treasure. The booty, incidentally, has a lot more bling, Disney said.
Fans of the movie will see familiar elements, including animatronic characters depicting Jack Sparrow and Capt. Barbossa. In the ride's cannon scene, in which a pirate ship appears to shoot cannonballs over the riders' heads, music from the movie will be playing. Special effects also have been upgraded to make the cannon blasts more realistic.
A waterfall scene has been added with the ghostly image of Davy Jones, the evil spirit of the seas and a character in the second movie, Rogers said. In the ride's town and treasure scenes, Jack Sparrow has been dropped into the mix.
"They look like they've always been there," Rogers said. "You're not saying, 'Oh, they put that movie thing there.' "
In fact, Disney tried not to tinker too much with the classic sets. Old characters are still up to their marauding ways, including the auctioneer, the pooped pirate and the wenches for sale. The burning town was tweaked to make the fire more realistic. The ride remains 14 1/2 minutes long.
"There's nothing changing about the fundamental character of the attraction," said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Disney's theme park division.
The makeover is in the spirit of what Walt Disney would have wanted, Rasulo said. According to one of Disney's most famous quotes, Disneyland will never be complete "as long as there is imagination left in the world."
"I think true purists will know that Walt was a man of innovation," Rasulo said. "Walt was a futurist. He thought nothing of embracing new technology and making new magic."
Jeff Baham, founder of the website tellnotales.com, said fans seemed split about the changes, though many were reserving judgment until after they experienced the renovated ride.
In the most extreme cases, some fans contend that the ride should remain untouched because it is the last attraction Disney worked on before his death, Baham said.
Given the park's track record, some aren't sure what to expect.
The last time Disney made changes to the ride in 1997, it became the butt of jokes after its drunken, looting buccaneers were made a bit more politically correct. The company "rehabilitated" the ride to make the pirates in the chase scene pursue food rather than scared maidens. It became a sin of gluttony rather than lust, officials said at the time.
Perhaps in a nod to the purists, that theme is being ditched to "make the story consistent," Rogers said, which means that the pirates will go back to their pillaging, misbehaving ways.
Jamie O'Boyle, a Philadelphia-based cultural analyst who has studied Disneyland and theme parks, said he was not surprised that fans were leery.
"Suspicion of Disney's motives is legitimate," O'Boyle said. "The company earned that suspicion over the past couple of decades with a series of bad decisions."
He cited such actions as Disney's replacement of the Swiss Family Robinson treetop abode with Tarzan's Treehouse and yanking guns from the Jungle Cruise skippers. The cruise captains recently got their faux firepower back but the Robinsons are still homeless.
Disney leadership, O'Boyle said, is still on probation.
Despite those concerns, he said the additions to the ride made sense. "This is one of those changes that Walt would have done in a heartbeat. If they put Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh in the attraction, it would be a destructive element."
Adding Jack Sparrow is a natural story evolution and doesn't contradict the original show, O'Boyle said.
Jennifer Figler, 29, a Southern California native who lives in Orlando, Fla., said she was not surprised by the overhaul.
"You hate to see a classic get changed, but they really struck it rich this time around so it's only obvious that they were going to give this a try," Figler said. "I am a little bit of a purist, but I'm also an optimist. I'm maintaining some positive hope."
• Ride opened at Disneyland on March 18, 1967
• Cost of original construction: $8 million
• Audio-animatronics cast: 68 people, 54 animals
• Length of canal: 1,838 feet
• The three-level ride is housed in two buildings totaling 112,826 square feet.
• More than 400 Disney Imagineers have worked in California and Florida over the last three years to update the ride.
• More than 270 speakers have been replaced throughout the attraction.
• It took three days to empty and refill the "bayou's" 750,000 gallons of water.
• The enhanced "Treasure Cache" scene includes more than 400,000 new gold coins and set pieces.