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Depp Part Deux: WDW's revamped version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" opens to the public

Depp Part Deux: WDW's revamped version of "Pirates of the Caribbean" opens to the public

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Yo ho, …o h… irates life fo… me.

Since 1973, that's what visitors to WDW's Pirates of the Caribbean have (figuratively) experienced. Start with Disneyland's 1967 classic, arguably the greatest E-Ticket ever built, and whittle it down to the barest essentials. Trim off the mood-building first act and the uphill finale, and shoehorn what's left into half the running time. What you get is still a great ride, a life-long favorite of this New Jersey-raised kid who never knew the wonders of the West Coast version. But it's a ride always destined to be a weak sister to its big brother in Anaheim.

So when plans were announced to update POTC with elements from the popular films, there was trepidation and anticipation. Trepidation mainly for the original; fans have a deep emotional connection to it, and their ire was raised in the past by Tony Baxter's 1997 "PC" rehab. In Florida though, there was more anticipation. We're less likely to toss around words like "untouchable" and "desecration," and more likely to dream about ways our version could be re-Imagineered into more than an abbreviated afterthought.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

The idea of transforming WDW's ride into the equal of the original (or even a near competitor) is an impossible dream. That would require a dramatic lowering of the Floridian water table, and the construction of a massive new show building. The water table may be dropping faster than you think (seen any new sinkholes today?). But even the biggest POTC fan would probably rather see the effort and money a complete overhaul would take invested in something brand new. Since early 2005 rumors of the rehabs have been swirling, ranging from an alternate nighttime flume at Disneyland, to only WDW getting a Jack Sparrow AA, to a new finale show scene in WDW's uphill lift (Jason Surrell shot down that rumor for me at a book signing last fall).

Disneyland's POTC reopened with great publicity last month, and the changes there have been well documented. (Check out this link for some incredible videos). WDW's version opened to the public with much less fanfare on Saturday July 1st. So few people seemed aware of it that I was able to ride half a dozen times in the evening with no more than a 15 minute wait. Since readers here are probably already well aware of the nature of the new additions, I'll confine my comments to how well they've been executed in the Florida attraction.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

The Caribbean Plaza area has been refreshed with new signage, most notably the ship's mast with a black "Pirates of the Caribbean" sail planted outside the ride entrance. It's a striking visual, and the skeletal pirate looking through a spyglass in the crow's nest is a beautiful touch. The clock tower window has some battle-damage scorch marks (but no cannon fire while I was there), and there are banners and painted scrolls with familiar phrases from the ride. The area sound loop now features cues from the film's score instead of steel drums. The overall effect is to make the initial impression of a darker, scarier, more adventuresome ride - not to excess, but just enough to slightly heighten the anticipation of danger. (I heard more than one small child in line asking how scary the ride was, something I hadn't heard too often previously). Some might say that this is tipping the ride's hand too early, but I think with WDW's greatly shortened ride time, you can't waste a moment in building the mood. One sad change is the loss of the barker bird; one CM, when asked if he might return, said emphatically "He's dead."

Inside the queue, once past the new electronic-eye turnstyles (thank you!), not much is changed. Some new (old-looking) paint, a slight lowering of light levels, and a cleaned up sound system that let's you hear some music that you may never have been able to hear before (a recurring theme in the upgrade). The dock area props have been minorly refreshed, and the "dead men tell no tales" line can be heard echoing faintly as you board.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

Immediately after your boat launches you'll see the first major addition. As you pass under the control booth window and round the first turn to the right, you will see the new Davy Jones fog screen effect. It is truly an amazing feat of technology, even better in person than on video. The realistic shimmering waterfall, and your ability to pass through it completely dry, makes me smile every time I see it. But while it's a technical home-run, it's only a triple artistically. For one, it comes far too early in the ride. It's literally the first thing you see, and there is little to no time to establish the atmosphere of the cave. The new effect means the colorful waterfalls have been muted. Worse, the key "dead men" line is barely heard before you see the new effect. Though it's heard echoing very faintly at the launch, first time riders will not have time to key into it. It's especially vexing because one of Davy Jones' 3 lines of dialogue is "Ah, but they DO tell tales. So says I, Davy Jones." If you haven't established the original line, then the response becomes a non-sequiter. Another problem is that the effect is not triggered by a sensor, but is just on a timed loop. That means that sometimes you'll see Davy and then pass thru him, as is most dramatic. But sometimes he'll appear when your boat is already halfway through, and sometimes you'll just see him talk to the boat ahead of you. All of this combines to mean that the effect, while sure to generate gasps of delight as is, could have been more effective from a storytelling point of view. The puzzling thing is, if the effect had been set a dozen or so yards further downstream (just before the beach) some of these problems might have been avoided. I can only assume that there was some technical reason why the projector and fog screen had to be mounted where they were.

The rest of the grottos have not been noticeably improved, and there is one major loss. Hurricane Harbor did not get DL's lightning effects, nor did the beach receive any movie prop treasure. Shockingly, the iconic Jolly Roger is gone. Not only has that memorable talking skull been evicted, but his safety warning spiel is AWOL, something I can't imagine warms Disney's lawyers' hearts. I'm of two minds on this change; on the one hand, combined with the overall lower light levels, this makes for a much more unexpected, and therefore thrilling, drop. On the other, that skull is ingrained in my memories of the ride, and without him that scene is a bit too quiet.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

After you splash down, you'll immediately notice the rousing new music pulled from the film - to my mind, a great improvement. Then, you'll notice the copious amounts of atmospheric fog in the harbor; so much that it makes the harbor seem smaller than before. The fort is much the same, as is the Wicked Wench, with the exception of what looks like some new rigging on the bow. There are 2 new stars of this scene; the first is a Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa AA who replaces the former ship's captain. This figure, while not "terrible" as some have complained, is not as fluid and dynamic as the one in California appears to be, though they were having trouble with him as of Friday so perhaps he will improve. As long as he continues to say "blooming cockroaches" along with his demands for Jack Sparrow, he's alright by me. The other new star is the cannon effects, which have been enhanced with new subwoofers and air cannons. They certainly sound much more percussive (a huge improvement on the old "hiss"), and splash water higher. On one trip I even felt a slight breeze. But they are nothing compared to the forceful blast of mist I experienced at DL. I wish they could adapt those simple rubber-band-powered air launchers that are (annoyingly) sold in parks and malls; they would seem perfect for an effect that would really knock you hat off.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

Moving into the well scene, you'll notice the new costume and dramatic new arm movements of the lead pirate. He looks great swinging his cutlass, I only wish I'd seen the Mayor spit water in response. Just past them is the 1st Jack Sparrow AA, and he's truly a work of art. Unlike Ellen, Bogie, or just about every other celebrity AA, this isn't some fugly Halloween-mask approximation. It is Johnny Depp in the flesh, down to the last fleck of eyeliner. Taken from a life-mask, and built with obvious care, it's a dead ringer standing still, and eerily accurate in motion. Hiding behind some dress forms, Jack leans and cranes his neck in a way that is not merely lifelike, but that captures the quirky essence of Depp's performance. I was initially wary when I heard they were doing a "realistic" AA, as opposed to a stylized caricature in the classic Marc Davis style. But when you think of it, the POTC films feature attractive leads surrounded by a grotesque, almost cartoonish cast of characters - much as the rides now do. Whatever qualms I might have had, now that I have seen it first-hand I can only applaud the decision to add Captain Jack.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

After sailing past the more-or-less untouched auction scene (is it just me, or is the Redhead's smirk diminished?) we enter the always-controversial chase scene. At WDW, the ladies are still chasing the pirates, but that's not the point. The reason that this scene has been the focus of so much controversy is that there wasn't anything else to focus on. As Tony Baxter has pointed out, this was always the weakest scene in the village portion of the show. Whatever you think of the result, I take him at his word that he was sincere in his desire to "plus" this scene in 1997. Now, that goal has finally been achieved. By replacing the girl hiding in the barrel with Sparrow, the scene finally has a dramatic focal point. This is no mere static head on a stick, as the old one was. It's a complete head and shoulders that can lift, lean, turn, and duck with amazing dexterity. It seems to communicate subtleties of performance, like the shifting of eye focus or the tilt of the head, with uncanny naturalism. If they could sell a replica Depp-in-a-barrel (have you seen the chimp AA sold at The Sharper Image?), they'd make a mint.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

And the new figure is ably complimented by a radically improved Pooped Pirate AA, who now moves and gestures with more lifelike enthusiasm than the real David Crosby. I believe the WDW version of this scene is even an improvement on the West Coast in its staging. In the original, the dog is positioned behind the pirate and to his left, directly against the barrel holding Jack, and the pirate faces the opposite way. In WDW, the dog is in front of the pirate and to his right. The pirate is looking at the dog, the dog is looking at Jack, and Jack is looking at the map. This is much better blocking from a theatrical point of view; the more dynamic triangle allows the pirate to relate to the dog, as opposed to blindly tossing the occasional comment over his shoulder.

The burning town remains much the same, with repaired but not improved fire effects - though a CM I rode with insisted the loaded-down pirate balancing on the boat was new. The jail is also unchanged, though the improved audio system lets "grab 'em by the ears" ring out clearly.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

The final addition is in the treasure room, which used to be unique to WDW, but is now duplicated in a vault along the uphill lift in DL. The room has been reconfigured, with some new treasure added but all the original figures removed. In their place sits Jack, rocking back and forth with one leg swung over the arm of his throne, holding a goblet in one hand and some treasure in the other. He's joined by a parrot (not the barker bird, but perhaps a second cousin) as he sings along to the theme song - the only talking Sparrow in the ride, voiced by Depp himself. Jack's animation and dialogue here are both first rate. He leans in his chair with precarious grace, and his hand animation perfectly captures the drunken swish of Depp's gestures. The audio track here is so long that I heard new bit on every ride. In addition to singing snippets of the theme song and saying "there's treasure enough for all", as he does in DL, WDW's Jack has some great interaction with the parrot that is unique to this version. Some of my favorites are when he asks "do you know the words to this song, parrot? If so, feel free to join in at any time," and when the parrot responds to the lyrics "maraud, embezzle, and even hijack" with "Hi, Jack! Hi, Jack!" Like the pooped pirate and the dog, giving Jack another character to play off of heightens the drama of the scene and the realism of the AA's performance.

Unfortunately, these improvements were undercut by some technical choices. The 3rd Jack AA at WDW is set deep in the treasure room, approximately where the tied-up soldier used to sit. It is much further from the boat than the vault in the West Coast version. Also, the dim indirect lighting put the AA's face in shadow for much of the animation cycle. As a result, guests can't see the figure and appreciate the effect as much as they otherwise might.

As the ride ends, now sans the pirates firing guns, you disembark onto the newly-reconfigured unload dock. Stepping onto the moving exit ramp, notice the peg-leg footprints newly painted on. And you can't miss the avalanche of movie-themed tchotskes in the gift shop.

So, was it worth it? Should we consider this renovation a success? If you're like me, you'll answer that question by turning around and getting right back in line, if only to see the amazing new fog screen and AAs again. Though a few beloved elements are gone (perhaps a few more than were necessary), the new additions are the kind that add great re-ride value, and will have people talking for some time to come. Nitpicks aside, I feel this update has breathed new life into this WDW attraction, even if it's still no substitute for a trip west to the original.

Now, when do we start debating the next round of additions? I say, if they're going to add Orlando Bloom, he better be swinging a sword Paris-style. As for Ms. Knightley… 

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  • Thanks so much for the detailed description! I can't believe they got rid of the safety skull!

    "if they're going to add Orlando Bloom, he better be swinging a sword Paris-style"

    Why Paris-style?  Why not Will Turner style?

    I think by the time they add Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, they'll both have turned into proper pirates anyway (in POTC 3).
  • I thought I had heard that Kiera and Orlando were only being installed in Disneylands version.

    Anyway. GREAT Article. My seasonal pass isnt good till August 17th, but Aug 17th. I'll be there riding over and over again. Not to mention Pilaging, plundering, kidnapping, ravaging and raping the new actor dressed as Jack Sparrow. Why o Why did they make that Pirates training session only available to young girls. I think a one on one dinner with Jack Sparrow should be in order for the ladies.

    Thanks for the great POSITIVE article.
  • haha i mean young kids* not young girls.
  • Glad you liked the article.  Niperkin, I was referring to the Disneyland Paris version of POTC, which has a unique pair of swordfighting AAs that actually make contact with their blades.
  • <<Why Paris-style?  Why not Will Turner style? >>

    I believe he's referring to the amazing sword-fighting Pirates in the Disneyland Paris version of the ride. Don't think he was referring to Paris Hilton.
  • I just read the article since I hadn't been able to ride until last night!  It was great.  Isn't the Barker bird perched next to a pirate sitting on an arch you go under?  I like to think that was him...Thanks for mentioning that you thought the harbor seemed smaller; I'm not the only one.  The sound definitely was an improvement.  I hope WDW gets Bloom & Knightley AA's...the storyline would be that more defined.  Thanks, Seth, for the great article and pictures!!!
  • The bird on the final bridge before the jail (next to the dirty-foot pirate) has always been there.  The barker bird AA was not recycled (perhaps they're saving him for an understudy at the Tiki Room?).
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  • Am I the first one to notice that the title of this article contains a pun of the name of the great French actor Gerard Depardieu?

    Do I get a prize?

    (And do I lose it for being so churlish as to note that "deux" is typoed?)
  • I have a few disagreements with Seth (after riding Pirates a total of 7 times over the past 9 days).

    1) The "Dead Man Tell No Tales" is very audible on the way to Davy Jones & I feel it is clearer and easier to understand than ever before.
    2) Obviously the cannons weren't working all the way when you went on. Those things pack a huge punch. If you are in front of one when it goes off, you are going to get a solid burst of air pushed at your head. When I went on it for the 2nd time, I made a point of taking my hat off as I was on the side of the boat & didn't want it to fall in the water.
    3) I think the skull being gone is a great thing. To me, it was always to corny & cartoony and would decrease the realistic effect they are trying to pull off.
    4) At first, I thought the lighting in the treasure room was really bad. The blue hue made it seem like there was less 'gold' in there than before. After riding it a few times though, I began to really like it. It gives it a very real effect (like the light was coming from a window & not a lightbulb) instead of lighting the area with regular lights. What I'm not fond of is that they closed the side door so you only get 1 view of the room.
  • I have always been a HUGE fan of the POTC ride. I lived in SoCal in the 70s and went to Disney about once a month - and ALWAYS rode POTC. One time I rode it 6x in one day. That was back when you had to give them the tickets! And I loved eating at the restaurant and watching the ride. Now that I live in SoFla I only get to WDW once or twice a year but I never miss riding POTC. Funny thing, it's my husband's favorite ride, too, so we always ride it a few times each trip. He has never been to Disneyland so he doesn't understand my love of New Orleans Square and having dinner in the acutal ride. Or how much bigger the ride is out there.

    We will be at WDW next month and can't wait to check out all the changes to POTC. I took tons of pictures of it last summer and us out in front, so it will be interesting to see the changes in this years photos.

    We were at the first viewing opening day of Dead Man's Chest - and I said on the way out the door I want to write Disney and BEG THEM NOT TO STOP WITH THREE!!! I heard Johnny say he wanted to do more, but I don't want to wait till 2010 or 2011!!

    Thanks for keeping us posted on all the dirt ~ er I mean info ~ on the Mouse!!
  • Thanks, askmike1.  I was able to ride 6 times on the 1st, but I need to ride again now that the grand opening has passed.  I can't wait to see if they got the cannons working here, the ones in DL were fantastic.  I think the other 3 are just matter of taste :)
  • I am not one to like change. This really doesnt sound so bad though.
    As I grow older some of the rides lose some of the effect, so perhaps this is a much needed change for me. My favourite part was always the guys trying to get the key from the dog.. is that all still there? I also thought the girls chasing around in circles was really fake looking (I am SUPER critical especially when it comes to Disney stuffs).. so the change there may impress me next time.

    (Anyone else miss Mr. Toad's wild ride at WDW?.. I SURE DO!)

    Unfortunately I live in Ontario Canada, and talking my parents into paying for another trip to WDW (for real Ive been begging to go to DL for years and thats just too far for them).. when I am nearly 30.. seems a little silly. But hopefully we can go soon.. so I can see the new stuff.

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