39 Years of the Caribbean - Dead Attractions Tell No Tales
On this day in 1973, Walt Disney World opened up her version of Pirates of the Caribbean amidst an interesting and fateful set of circumstances.
Striving in 1971 to open a theme park and a resort very much unique and removed from the original Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom didn’t plan on building a Florida version of the popular California attraction. Instead, attention was diverted to creating experiences unique to the Vacation Kingdom. Among these were the Mickey Mouse Review, aesthetically unique versions of the Haunted Mansion, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and plans to further expand the Magic Kingdom. These plans would fundamentally alter the Magic Kingdom’s similarities to Disneyland, but would also change dramatically, surprisingly, in response to fan desires.
When Pirates of the Caribbean premiered in Disneyland in 1967, it was a darling of the press, and widely seen as one of the last great attractions that Walt Disney had a personal influence on. With this in mind, guests in Florida expected to see WED’s efforts replicated in the new resort. Disney had other plans.
Disney, fearing that Florida was too close to the actual Caribbean to be able to recreate a thematic version of that associated culture, set their sights on a western themed attraction. Marc Davis was tasked with dreaming up the Western River Expedition, a variation on the theme of Pirates' modus operandi. The ride would have been massive, taking up the western corner of the Magic Kingdom, and housed in a show building adorned with rock work, and a roller coaster. At the end of all this, only the roller coaster would reach fruition and become Big Thunder Mountain Railroad under the direction of Tony Baxter.
But Marc Davis’ Western River Expedition was set to be Florida’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean. An expansive journey down a flume, guests would have seen cowboys and Native Americans, landscapes and animals. All of these tableaux would have been populated by audio animatronics, reflecting Disney’s desire to recreate the experience driven ride of Pirates, while shifting the thematic intent of the ride.
Sadly, this would all be lost, as visitors to the Vacation Kingdom expected to see Pirates. Facing a massive budget crisis, and strong desire to expand the Magic Kingdom’s guest capacity in some way, Disney executives (namely, Dick Nunis) decided to postpone the Western River Expedition and construct Pirates of the Caribbean. Marc Davis, although bothered that his new concept was slowly being ignored, at least took solace in the fact that Pirates, an attraction he had a great influence on for Disneyland, would be recreated, and with new attention to problems that the original had with continuity.
Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is a meandering epic through time and far flung environments. It was a hope that WDW’s version would strengthen the experience’s cogency in narrative. These changes were deemed too costly to make… and the Florida version of Pirates ended up losing one third of the Disneyland experience.
However, Florida did end up with one large fix for her version of the Caribbean romp, the environment she exists in. Boasting an extension of Adventureland, Caribbean Plaza was created to be the counterpoint to New Orleans Square, which houses Disneyland’s Pirates. Caribbean Plaza placed Pirates of the Caribbean in massive Spanish Castillo, in support of the ride’s cultural niche. The queue to the ride was designed by Davis to fully improve the mood and experience leading up to Pirates, something the Disneyland original lacked. A series of corridors were designed to wend through the fort, offer detailed examples of placemaking, and support the idea and time period surroundings that beset when pirates plundered the Spanish Main. Sound clips and music heightened the experience, adding a subtext of narrative; Spanish soldiers warned of attacking marauders and a town in peril. The Castillo itself is surrounded by the small village of shoppes and eateries, as mentioned in the ride, and Disney World suddenly was given a unique environment and area of the Magic Kingdom. Rounding out Adventureland, Caribbean Plaza, was a fully encapsulated version of Pirates of the Caribbean. Although the ride itself is watered down to the most iconic and necessary moments of the original, Caribbean Plaza provides a unique backdrop that purports the experience and guiding thematic emotion of the ride.
So, on December 15th, 1973, Walt Disney World opened her version of Pirates of the Caribbean to much fanfare, while fundamentally altering the projected plans for the new park. Pirates had plundered the resort’s budget, and any funds left were sent to furthering the capacity of the other side of the park: Tomorrowland. Building on the need for the thrill ride, the one originally planned to be part of the Western River Expedition, Space Mountain, a long conceptualized addition of the Florida property, was given approval for funding. When Tomorrowland was finally completed in 1975 (With the Carousel of Progress, the WEDway, and the Astro Jets) and focus settled once again on Frontierland. By this time, Tony Baxter had built Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, without the Western River Expedition to accompany it. Walt Disney World would receive a facsimile of the ride, in an effort to save funds for other upcoming projects.
And thus, one could label this as a sad story in the annals of Disney’s history, especially when considering the loss of a grand concept for Frontierland. But, on this, the anniversary of Caribbean Plaza and WDW’s Pirates of the Caribbean, I would like to offer a unique perspective. Walt Disney World DID get something unique and consequential out of the entire debacle. Caribbean Plaza is filled with the quality, details, charm, and grit that most of us appreciate in Disney’s parks. It is a thematic statement, totally Disney World’s own. Pirates and Caribbean Plaza speaks to the efforts of Marc Davis, a legend of WED, and the subtle brand of happenstance and history surrounding Disney’s Florida kingdom. With that in mind, the Florida version of Pirates’ shortcomings are far outshone by the quality and vision of the project.