Monday, May 16, 2011

The secret influence on Pirates of the Caribbean?

Pirates of the Caribbean is, without question, one of the greatest theme park attractions of all time. Since the inception of Disneyland, Walt Disney always wanted a pirate-themed attraction. His artists and designers spent many years on concepts for a wax museum walk-through, and later had the inspiration to instead focus on building a dark ride through the world of pirates instead. In between the initial concept and the final masterpiece, though, another park (a park with strong and controversial ties to Disneyland) on the other side of the country built an attraction with a very similar theme. Could this attraction have been an unacknowledged influence on Pirates of the Caribbean?

We'll begin with my personal recollection, and then examine the facts:

When I was kid, Disney World's Magic Kingdom was the best amusement park I'd ever been to (and it would be a long time until I made it out to Disneyland to revise that opinion). It was not, however, the nearest. There was Boblo Island near Detroit with was OK, and then there was Cedar Point in Ohio, which for a park close enough to be a day trip, was a great alternative.

The grand ship outside of The Pirate Ride in Cedar Point.
Playing on this ship was as fun as the attraction itself.

Today, Cedar Point is dominated by Roller Coasters, offering few other non-kiddie attraction options (a rare exception is the Jungle-Cruise-meets-Deliverance attraction called Paddlewheel Excursions, but that's a post for another time), but back in the 70s and 80s Cedar Point offered a variety of fun attractions. Sure, the coasters were the headliners even then, but there were log flumes, a fun house, the Earthquake dark ride, and my favorite attraction in the park: The Pirate Ride.

Sadly, my memories of the attraction's details are kind of dim. I know there was an outdoor pirate ship deck you could play on with occasional sound effects of incoming-cannon fire before the water around it would pop into the air in spots. I remember that the inside dark ride was full of blacklit scenes of pirates acting out various scenes. I remember moving skeletons and a sea monster. I remember pirate ships firing at one another from either side of your vehicle.

A surly bartender serves druken pirates in the pub section of the ride.

In short, it was a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean.

It was far less sophisticated, of course. These were barely-moving figures, not sophisticated audio-animatronics. Your vehicles were shaped like boats, but were not actually floating in water. The whole thing looked a lot cheaper than that more famous high-water-mark of Disney Imagineering. But it was a nice way to break up the coasters. It was schlocky, it was fun.

What I didn't know then, and what I was shocked to learn as an adult: It was also older than Pirates of the Caribbean.

Promotional art from The Bucaneers at Freedomland, U.S.A.

This attraction's original home was a theme park called Freedomland, U.S.A. where it was called "The Buccaneers". It was even located in a land entirely themed to - you guessed it - New Orleans! This, you will note, was six years before New Orleans Square opened at Disneyland. Seven years before Pirates of the Caribbean.

When that park closed in 1964, the attraction was moved to Cedar Point and
re-christened with the more generic title "The Pirate Ride." This was still a year before Pirates of the Caribbean opened in Disneyland.

Guests came under fire while passing a pirate ship.

Jason Surrell's excellent book, Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies makes no mention of this attraction. Any history of Pirates of the Caribbean I've ever read talks about the original plans for a wax museum, and then at some point a light bulb of inspiration striking to create the watery ride.

Could Walt and his crew have come up with the idea of a ride-through pirate
attraction without inspiration from this attraction? Of course they could have, but it's very hard to believe that they wouldn't have known about this attraction given the following points:

1. Walt liked to keep an eye on the competition. He thoroughly researched amusement parks and themed entertainment venues before Disneyland's creation. Even today, there are very few theme parks. Freedomland was one of the earliest and most ambitious attempts to copy Walt's success with Disneyland, and it would be silly to think he wouldn't be closely monitoring everything about the park (a park Ed Sullivan referred to as "Disneyland's equal in the East).

2. The Bucanneers (and all of Freedomland) was built by Marco Engineering. Marco Engineering was owned & operated by a one Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, called C.V. Wood's job before opening Marco? Vice President & General Manager of Disneyland.

Walt Disney, C.V. Wood, and Buzz Price planning Disneyland in happier times.

Wood marketed Marco (and himself) by calling himself "The Master Builder of
Disneyland" for which he received a lawsuit from Uncle Walt himself.

See? Walt was keeping an eye on Wood, and most certainly on Freedomland, U.S.A.

And as all this was going on, Disney decided to ditch the idea having guests walk through a museum featuring immobile wax replicas of real pirates, but instead send them on a boat ride through an immersive dark ride filled with colorful pirates... just like one of Freedomland's signature rides.

A couple of sad pirates in a skiff.

I'm not accusing anyone of ripping anyone off. Pirates of the Caribbean is a far superior attraction to Buccaneers/The Pirate Ride and full of innovations both technical and artistic (I wouldn't be surprised if part of the reason is Walt wanted to make sure his pirate attraction greatly surpassed that of his former employee and would-be competitor). Just as there were haunted houses before The Haunted Mansion's and roller coasters before the Matterhorn, it doesn't mean Disney did something wrong by taking a basic concept and doing it bigger and better in every way.

I am suggesting, though, that they knew it existed and probably drew inspiration from it. Surely Wood drew inspiration from the dark rides he helped build in Disneyland, and I think the Imagineers, in turn, drew inspiration from his pirate-themed attraction. Knowing the facts and the timeline, it's very hard for me to think otherwise.

A mural from the loading area of The Pirate Ride at Cedar Point.

Sadly, Cedar Point shut down The Pirate Ride in 1996, taking a big step away from the days when it offered a variety of fun attractions. The space it used for storage now, and some of the old pirate props have been known to shop up among the park's Halloween decorations. Pirates of the Caribbean meanwhile, continues to entertain thousands daily, now in multiple parks around the world.

1 comment:

  1. I was not aware of Marco Engineering. But it is worth noting that the ride system used for the Freedomland dark rides was built by Arrow Development (and based on the dark ride systems they built for Disneyland), the same company that ultimately built the ride system for Disneyland's PotC...a ride system that then returned to Cedar Point as the Mill Race flume.