Pirates of Marketing-land

I remember when I used to get home from trips and have time to write a big ‘ol trip report with photos every time. Actually I don’t remember it, but I have posts like that, so I should remember it I flew down late Wednesday; a great flight as it turned out. I’d been heavily […]

I remember when I used to get home from trips and have time to write a big ‘ol trip report with photos every time.

Actually I don’t remember it, but I have posts like that, so I should remember it

I flew down late Wednesday; a great flight as it turned out. I’d been heavily girl-watching a woman at the ticket counter when I was in the security line, wanting to get a look at the front ’cause the back was so good; all the right curves in all the right places, and a whole lot of strawberry-blond hair. She was in a weird sort of shorts-pants-suit that shouldn’t have worked, but for some reason did; it looked both casual and business-like, and cute.

The self-same woman wound up sitting next to me on the plane, and the front was even better than that back; she wasn’t just cute, she was gorgeous. We spent the hour-and-a-quarter long trip to Anaheim talking about tattoos; she won my respect by knowing some of my tattoos were Maori, and she wanted as much of a tour of all my tattoos as I could give without 1) getting up or 2) dropping trou (which I’ll admit I’d have done happily if asked).

So it was an unusually good flight.

D-land was great. We’d picked a dead week, so thursday night we were able to walk on to any ride in the park with no wait – and no major rides were closed, so I had my near fill of indiana jones, the matterhorn, haunted mansion, and of course, Pirates of the Caribbean (but more about that in a moment).

Friday, I went on a ride I’d never done before, at Disney’s lesser park, California Adventure; Grizzly River Run. And I gotta say, this ride kicks ass. We got there late friday, and the temperature was dropping, so there were no lines at all; however, this meant that it was freezing. We rode until we were near hypothermic, and soaked to the skin. Only cold drove us off. The good thing is, we were staying at the Grand Californian, so our hotel was literally less that a hundred feet from GRR. I love GRR for the ride, of course, but an added benefit is what a good dousing of cold water does to pretty young ladies tee-shirts. Mmmm.

In any case, I flew home from d-land late saturday, took a cab since no one was there waiting to collect me at the gate (hey, a guy can dream), and then spent my sunday doin’ nuthin’ but reading a James Bond novel and nursing a sore foot (I’ll be damned if i know what i did to it, but I managed to hurt myself two days before leaving; luckily darvocet is a good way to way to enhance enjoyment of the Magic Kingdom), and cookin’ some fine caldo de pollo.

All in all, a way-too-short but very easy, low-key trip.

But let’s talk about Pirates.

This was going to be a short piece, and now I find it’s grown long and longer. Skip away if you’re not interested in Disney. next time, I’ll post something sexier.

Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Disney’s theme parks. And also obviously, I’m a bit of a fan of piracy. So it kinda goes without saying that I’d like Disney’s classic Pirates of the Caribbean. So it was with some trepidation that I rode said attraction, after hearing that Disney had made some changes to the ride, in order to incorporate elements of the movie.

Now, understand – I think the Pirates movie is great. Truly; it’s in my top ten movies list and has been since I first saw it. I love it. However, one of the reason the movie worked so damned well is that they didn’t set out to make a movie of the ride; they didn’t try to make things line up. They said, well, hell, let’s just make us a great pirate movie. Sure there are tiny elements of the ride, but they’re nods; they are a little knowing wink. And they’re in the same style with the rest of the movie, which is full of nudges and winks. The whole thing’s a campy masterpiece.

The movie is a thing, a complete world unto itself. And so is the ride. And they need to stay that way.

When the movie came out, Disney (because it’s what Disney does) launched into a vast merchandising campaign. The park was full of new pirates-the-ride merchandise, and full of pirates-the-movie merchandise. I was delighted; I didn’t have any interested in a t-shirt that said Captain Jack, but suddenly being able to find four or five different ride-ralated hats and t-shirts was fantastic.

If you read the fantastic Re-Imagineering blog (and if you’re a Disney fan you must), you’ve seen this at length and I won’t belabor it overmuch here. But the thing Disney’s great rides have – to a one – is that they’re a completely immersive experience. You’re not just on a ride – like a classic roller coaster. You’re in a story, or a scene, or a setting. There are varying degrees of success with this, from the oldest dark rides to things like Pirates, the Mansion or Indiana Jones; but the common thread is to feel you’re in the midst of a singlular and complete experience. You’re somewhere else; not in Anaheim, California or Orlando, Florida; not in a theme park. When you walk into one of these rides, they take you away from where you are.

There are a lot of rides where this experience is achived; Indiana Jones starts with a brilliant walk-up through ruins and tombs and caves that look like a real archeological dig; the new Expedition Everest in Orlando is supposed to feel like you’re suddenly in the himalayas. The hauntend mansion is spooky the second your walk though the doors. But the ultimate ride in this sense – Walt Disney’s final ride, the last one he worked on himself and the one where in a very real sense it was perfected – is Pirates (And i’m talking about the one in Anaheim; the Orlando version, alas, is a pale imitation. If you’ve ridden only the one there (Doxy? You listenin’?), you’ve not ridden Pirates of the Caribbean).

Form the second you leave Lafitte’s Landing, the heat and bustle of Disneyland is left behind; you step into a boat, and suddenly you’re flaoting through a twilit bayou. To the left of you are old boats, shacks, fireflies, and the sounds of frogs and crickets; to the right, the ‘outdoor’ patio of a romantically lit restaurant (nevermind that in truth the restaurant is filled with grumpy mouse-eared kids and parents who wished that the mint juleps had actual mint julep in them). You float slowly through this sleepy bayou, and begin to hear an omiously cheerful banjo play, and then you’re moving into a dark, spooky tunnel and you start to hear a voice.

“Psst! Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys…

It goes on and on, the longest ride at Disneyland. There are smells – the fog, the damp murk; there are sounds, water, the thunder and scream as boats behind you come down the flumes, and later, music, explosions, and the laughter of a cartoonists vision of the golden age of piracy. Is it real, or anything like it? Hell no, this is pure, unadulterated Disney – and when I say Disney, I mean Walt, and Disney’s classic imagineers. Names like Xavier Atencio, Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, and a dozen more. This isn’t real, but it’s a complete world unto itself, were pirates auction redheads and sleep with pigs and chase wenches ’round and round forever, without catching them. And you float, slowly, eerily, through the middle of it, thought buildings that burn without ever coming down, past guns that fire air into your face, past prisoners forever hopeful of escape.

There is no ride – anywhere – that has this sense of place and world. It’s unique.

So of corse, today’s Disney can’t leave that alone. The have to fuck with it.

This again has been covered extensively at Re-Imagineering; go read about it there. But in short, Walt’s Disney was about the experience. You walked into Disneyland and you were transported away. You were in the main street, not of a real american town, not of a place and time that really was, but the main street your nostalgia and the sheen of memory creates. You’re in the perfect small town you wish you grew up in. From the center of town, you turn to your left an old west that never was, to your right a future you wish would be, and ahead of you a place where you can walk through the middle of fairy-tales. Once you’re in any of these worlds, you step onto any ride, and you’re transported again, from Disneyland, the park, to someplace utterly imaginary.

That was Walt’s Disneyland. It was, from beginning to end, escapist. You were as far from Anaheim, California as Walt’s imagination and the available technology could possibly take you.

But that is not today’s Disney.

Now, that’s not to say today’s Disney can’t make good rides. I mean; Indiana Jones, Expedition Everest, GRR, etc. But that’s not the point. The point is that today’s Disney – Disney the corporation, Disney the marketing machine – has changed the way Disney’s imagineering department thinks about rides.

In Walt’s day, the rides may have been inspired by movies in some cases (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Toad); but not in others, And the thing was, these were not built to sell toys based on the films, they were built to immerse the rider in the fantasy of the movie. Today, rides are built – almost to a one – to tie in to some merchandising concept. Most of Disney’s recent rides are things like Buzz Lightyear (toy story), the in-process submarine update (Nemo), ‘Dinosaur’ in orlando (from the movie of the same name, which of course no one remembers), Winnie the Pooh.

I could go on ad nauseum, but the point’s been well made elsewhere. The real point is that today’s Disney has forgotten the core idea on which Disneyland was created; not that the rides are static, never to be changed, but that EXPERIENCE is what needs to drive all updates and changes. Not marketing, but guest/rider experience.

I say all this to frame a review of the recent changes to Pirates.

I can summarize this easily; the changes are well done, but utterly ill-concieved. But since this is already growing into a much longer entry than I ever intended, let’s carry on.

I’ll assume if you’re still reading, you’ve ridden the ride. You know what it was. So here’s what’s changed. First, they’ve done a throurough re-furbishment, and this is great. The audio-animatronics have all been worked over; the movements are smooth, the skin and clothing all looks fresh and new. This is the best I’ve ever seen this ride look. Key tableaus like the skeleton-at-the-helm have had improvements in lighting and staging; the treasure chamber glitters with more and newer treasure. The guns, cannons and explosions pop, and the audio is crystal clear. The ride looks and sounds, in a word, great.

However, as rumored, they’ve added elements from the movie, and here’s where they went horribly wrong. First, before the great reveal of the first animatronic pirates in the ship, outside the gates of the town, there’s a dark passage. The idea here is that drama builds; you had the classic, moaning voice saying …dead men tell no tales… and slowly, you began to hear the sounds of battle and the ship-captain’s spiel. Now, they’ve put in a ‘smoke curtain’ effect (which I must admit is a terrific, simple effect, like you’re sailing into a ghostly wall, or a waterfall); but they’ve projected Davy Jones onto it. Now, if you’ve seen the second, forgettably bad Pirates film, you’ll understand the stupidity of this. First, he’s silly looking, not scary (and he had a squeaky, high-picthed voice in the film, increasing the silliness); second, the idea of Davy Jones being a person, rather than a sailor’s image of death, renders the whole idea of Davy Jones’ Locker literal and sorta of weak. So sticking this image in the middle of the ride is jarring. This is where the first snap you out of the experience by making you think of something outside the ride. Still, the smoke curtain effect is striking, even if you have some ass in the front of the boat (*cough*me*cough*) waves hands through the smoke every time. Lose Jones and project the talking skull from the beginning of the ride here, and you have a winner, re-enforcing the experience rather than disrupting it.

But nevermind; we’re past it and on to one of the best single moments of the ride, the pirate ship.

Now, this was classic; the Wicked Wench, captained by an un-named pirate, is shelling the fortress over the rider’s head while exhorting his crew on to greater piracy. Voiced by Xavier Atencio, it’s an absolute classic.

Gone now – replaced by a poor version of the film’s Captain Barbossa, voiced by (they claim) Jeffrey Rush; but if it’s really Rush, it’s Rush on some heavy sedatives, because the voice is lifeless. The scene, however, does have improved effects, with cannon-ball ‘explosions’ now strong enough to get the rider wet, and with a new ‘cannon fire’ effect that delivers an air punch-in-the-face that’s just plain cool. The loss of the old Captain isn’t that disruptive, since the new one doesn’t really look or sound like Barbossa; but it’s a pointless change, and a loss of one of the ride’s coolest sound bytes (the way the old captain pronounced ‘cockroaches’ as ‘cock-a-roaches’).

Next, however, comes one of the the most disruptive moments. After the ship scene, we get our first view of piracy; the town’s mayor being tortured by n’er-do-wells, presumably to find out where treasure is hidden. His wife exhorts him to tell the pirates what they want to know, telling him don’t be cheeky. The pirates dunk him in the well, and ‘pipe him aloft’.

Now, though, it’s changed, and what they ask is, where’s jack sparrow. And here’s where we see that they’ve gone the way of so many recent Disney rides by adding the ‘someone is lost, missing or hiding‘ story line.

And then we look behind the usual pirates, and there’s the jarring sight, the image that takes you out of the ride’s experience completely. There’s Johnny Dep.

If you’ve ever looked at the concept sketches for this ride, you’ll understand; they’re not supposed to be realistic. They’re a very life-like image of cartoon pirates; illustrations brought to life. The most realistic of them are still something from a comic book, exaggerated in color, facial expression, garb. They’re not supposed to look real; they’re only supposed to feel real. You don’t really notice this when you’re on the ride, of course, but it’s clearly the intent.

So when you look up, and behind the vaguely silly-looking pirates stands an incredibly real, better-than-madame-tussaud version of johnny fucking depp, you’re wrenched out of the ride, and you’re looking at hollywood. You’re not seeing Pirates of the Caribbean, the movie, you’re not seeing Captain Jack Sparrow, you’re seeing Depp, in all his life-like, too-much-makeup, inspired-by-keith-richards, too-cool latex flesh. And it could not look more wrong. It’s like the rare moments when you see a ‘cast member’ (ie, a ride operator or maintenance person) dart through a ride while they fix something, a sight I’ve really seen a couple times. The real-life in the middle of the fantasy is wrong and disturbing.

You don’t glide past, looking at the details of the town, listening to the sounds, the voices, the music. You don’t drink in the experience. You sit, thinking, It’s Johnny goddamn Depp!.

The rest of this section of the ride, unchanged apart from being beautifully refurbished, is now ignored. Your buzz if killed. We Wants th’ Redhead, hell, what we wants is not to think about Johnny Depp.

Under a bridge, and all is well. Again, everything’s fresh and bright, and you begin to get back into the time and place, watching imaginary pirates gently pillage the town and not-really-rape the women. And all is more or less well, until you get to what was once a wench hiding in a barrel. Only now, there’s fucking Depp again, peeking out, and all you can think is, 1) how cool does he look, and 2) that looks just like him. Yes, it’s impressive, but again, he looks completely out of place, wrong in color, texture, wrong in facial structure. He’s too damned real, and he’s a movie star in the middle of imaginary characters.

But you know, you’re quickly past it. And the rest looks right, fresh, new, everything sounding great and moving well.

Until you get to the final chamber. And this is the part of the ride where in truth, you spend the most time. Because it’s the last section of water before the lift, it’s where boats most often wait when the ride is full, or when there’s a technical problem. Often, I’ve sat in this room for two or three minutes, or even more, listening to the ‘poof’ of air guns and watching barrels of ‘gun powder’ sway over my head, or looking at the muscles and the cool anchor tattoo on one of the two pirates who are forever lugging a chest of treasure. They’re gone now, and you see instead a wall where they once stood.

And then your boat hits the ramp, and on your left is both the best thing in the addition, and the worst.

The final scene is now a treasure chamber, in which sits Johnny Depp as Captain jack. He rocks his chair, jack-booted foot on something. He gestures, moves his head, he blinks, he speaks in Captain Jack’s voice. It is, in fact, one of the most sophisticated and life-like animatronics Disney’s ever produced. It’s eerie; it’s kind of creepy. It is brilliantly done. And again, it’s so completely out of place, that you’re once more wrenched from the brilliant ride experience and confronted with something else.

Ever since it was created, the climb up the lift, with all it’s awkward rattle and shake, signals your return to the real world, or at least, the park. It’s slow, and sort of clumsy. You emerge from the dark and spooky/happy world of the ride into the light and sound of the park. The feeling is always weirdly sad, but it’s it’s done in such a way that the experience is gradual, the transition from ride-world to park-world is the longest and most carefully planned of any ride, anywhere.

That’s blown now. You encounter what amounts to a promo for a series of films in between the ride, and the ride transition. So instead of the gradual dissolution of the experience, you are wrenched out of it and then all you get is the end; not smooth, not gradual, but now disjointed. Yes, the scene is fantastic; no, it doesn’t belong there.

I rode pirates – as I always do – many times in the two and a half days I spent at the park this trip. And I tried very hard to like the changes. It is still, without question, my favorite ride at Disneyland, my favorite ride anywhere, in any park. The changes haven’t ruined the experience. And with time, I’m sure the level of disruption the changes engender will lessen. But the ride is, in a significant way, less. And for no good reason. Putting Depp’s rubber head in several scenes will not sell more t-shirts, more movie tickets, more DVDs. It won’t sell more plastic swords or cute pink ‘pirate princess’ tops. It won’t sell more mouse ears. Because those things are already selling as fast as they can stock them. The ride itself was already selling souvenirs like mad, and the movies incresed that tenfold. They don’t need to cross over; in fact part of the brilliance of the film was that it didn’t make any attempt to cross over, to make a story out of a ride that didn’t need story. The movie invented it’s own universe, separate and apart from the ride, and each was it’s own unique thing. Crossing them over somehow lessened each.

And that’s really the issue; some things are better in a pure state, not mixed, not adulterated, not stepped on. Not cut. And that’s what I want; I want my Pirates experience un-cut.

But you know, I’m still going back and riding it every time I walk by. A pirates’s life for me, god dammit.

10 thoughts on “Pirates of Marketing-land”

  1. I adored the old Pirates ride, in fact the scene where the pirates have a bunch of women tied up greatly infuenced my sexual fantasies for years..still does.

    How weird is that, Disney was my first porn!

  2. Jeff, my older daughter’s 13 and is more annoyed than I am; the captain was her fave part of the ride and she says they ‘ruined it’. The little one (8) doesn’t care as much, though i think she picked up her sister’s irritation a little. If they’re younger, though, or not such geeks, I don’t think they’ll care.

    It’s only über-geeks like me that really care.

  3. Don’t have to be a geek about it. First thing I did the one and only time I’ve been to Land was go PotC. First ride I went on in World the one and only time I’ve been there was PotC. With my mom. She demanded. It’s not a geek thing. It’s tradition. And they’re fucking with the Mouse.

  4. This isn’t real, but it’s a complete world unto itself, were pirates auction redheads and sleep with pigs and chase wenches ’round and round forever, without catching them.

    OK, I’m confused. You enjoy a ride where the sex-starved pirates fail to capture the wenches??

    Some pirate, you.

  5. Lets put it this way, Brandon.

    I’d rather have a ride with more rape and pillage, but that wouldn’t be Walt’s ride. My objection though is to the change made some years ago, where pirates-chasing-wenches (for obvious reasons) was altered to pirates-chasing-women-for-food. That, also, wasn’t Walt’s ride. It was a nod to stupid political correcteness, and was described by the ride’s original writer “X” Atencio as turning the ride into “Boy Scouts of the Caribbean.”

    Yeah, my ride would include wenches in chains and a little more death and mayhem. But I don’t require that this ride by my ride. Just that it remain Walt’s.

  6. Speaking of it being Walt’s ride, have you ever read the short series of articles by zamgwar who playfully describes taking Walt’s head out of the freezer and taking him on trips to the MK? (Walt calls it ‘Me World’) and there are plenty-o-references to Walt’s original vision for different things.

    I just did a quick search and came up with zip. Very funny stuff, though and I appreciate the nod to the way things are “supposed” to be.


  7. Just got back from Disney and a ride on Pirates. The last time I rode this I was a child. I understand now. Everything you said rings so true. Like the chime of pure crystal. Put this up as one of your “best ever” posts. I think that people will remember reading it and want to see it again after their trip…

    You’re just right. They made everything less.

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