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Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean rides get updated

Arthur Levine, Special to USA TODAY

In retrospect, it's hard to believe it took this long.

For over 50 years, hundreds of millions of visitors sailed past the auction scenes in the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean rides at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World‘s Magic Kingdom in Florida. Caught up in the pageantry and fun of the attractions, most of them probably didn’t think twice about what was being depicted. But there, in the squeaky-clean, family-friendly, happiest places on earth, women (albeit, animatronic representations of women) were shown tied together so that they could be auctioned like chattel to pirates. Under a banner that read “Take a Wench for a Bride,” no less. Yo whoa.

Earlier this year, Disney did the politically correct thing and modified the scenes in the rides at both parks. There are still auctions. But instead of women, it’s chickens and goods that are on the block. And instead of showing ‘em your larboard side as instructed by the auctioneer, Redd, the wench in the spotlight, has now been transformed into a pirate herself.

Brandishing a pistol and trading her frilly hat for a tri-corner number, she still takes center stage. But it’s rum that she’s looted, not her hand in marriage, which the empowered Redd now offers to the pirates.

First opened in 1967, Pirates of the Caribbean was the last Disneyland attraction that Walt Disney personally supervised. He passed away a few months before its debut. Pirates is one of the most famous, if not the seminal Disney theme park attraction. The rides gained more cachet starting in 2003 when the first installation of the wildly popular film series they inspired, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” was released.

Making any changes to a Disney ride, especially one as beloved and storied as Pirates, can be difficult. Even casual fans, many of whom consider going to the parks to be a cherished tradition, develop emotional attachments to the attractions. A smaller contingent of rabid fans can get downright apoplectic if anybody dares to challenge the enshrined canon and mess with “their” rides. That’s why Disney treaded carefully with Pirates.

According to Kathy Mangum, regional executive, Walt Disney Imagineering Atlantic, she and the team assigned to oversee the changes consulted with Disney historians, women’s groups, company executives, and others. At first, they weren’t sure whether they should proceed at all.

However, former creative leader of Imagineering and onetime right-hand man to Walt Disney, Marty Sklar, reminded the team that Walt was always tinkering with Disneyland’s rides and would have considered changing Pirates. (Sklar passed away, at age 83, in July 2017.)

Ultimately, it was something more elemental that helped nudge Mangum to move forward. “I kept thinking of a little girl riding that boat right now,” the Imagineer says. “Is this a scene we want her to be seeing?”

To update the ride, Imagineers carefully studied the drawings of Pirates’ original lead designer, Marc Davis. One of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the famed animator went on to help create some of Disneyland’s most cherished rides. What they came up with is “respectful to the tone and the sense of humor” that Davis established, Mangum notes. “If you put the [original and revised] scenes side by side and crossed your eyes, you might not even notice the difference,” she adds.

The modified scene does seem right at home in the Pirates’ world. Presenting Redd as a strong-minded pirate is consistent with the movies’ Elizabeth Swann character (the role played by Keira Knightley). Rather than downplaying the revision, Disney capitalized on it at Disneyland by introducing a Redd character who meets and greets visitors in the park’s New Orleans Square.

This isn’t the first time that the Imagineers have altered Pirates—or addressed its misogyny. For example, pirates used to chase women in an endless circle in one of the scenes, but Disney reversed the roles so that the women chase the pirates. A few years after the first movie opened, Disney introduced Captain Jack Sparrow and other characters and references from the film into the rides.

Misogyny and wench auctions may be taboo, but robbery, public drunkenness (keep in mind that alcohol is still not served inside the park at Disneyland), arson, and threatening to use firearms—all of which are depicted in the rides—are still fine. But hey, they’re pirates. That’s kind of their thing. So drink up me ‘earties, yo ho.


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