Disneyland plans a PC makeover for its Pirates of the Caribbean attraction

At Disneyland, pirates can still drink, pillage and fight.

But the swashbuckling tradition of abducting and exploiting women is being sent to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Call it a sign of the times.

The park plans to revamp a section of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean attraction that depicts a parade of women being put on the auction block — under a decidedly un-PC banner that reads “Auction, Take a wench for a bride.”

The auction will be replaced next year by a less offensive scene of pirates forcing the local townsfolk to give up their valuables. After all, who can be offended by a little pirate pilfering?

In the 62 years since Walt Disney welcomed his first visitors to Anaheim, Disneyland has sometimes struggled to adapt the founder’s version of fantasy with public sensibilities that differ from those of park visitors of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

On Tom Sawyer Island, the mock frontier rifles were removed along with the victim of an Indian arrow, who lay sprawled for years in front of a burning settler’s cabin.

For several years, the skippers in the Jungle Cruise were not allowed to blast a fake revolver at the animatronic hippos in the river until visitor complaints forced Disney to re-arm the cruise ship captains and give them the green light to fire at will.

But the Pirates attraction, the last ride that Walt Disney himself helped design before he died in 1966, may have been reined in the most to conform to a more politically correct world — a tricky task given the ride’s original rowdy spirit.

Remember those scene of pirates chasing women throughout a pillaged town? In 1997, Disney put trays of food in the women’s hands so that it looked like the pirates are lusting after the food instead of the fleeing women in their flowing gowns.

Another scene that got pitched overboard showed a pirate holding up women’s lingerie while a frightened woman, apparently naked, hides in a nearby barrel.

“At Disney, their specialty is scrubbing everything to be squeaky clean and palatable,” said Rick Rothschild, a ride designer for Disney from 1978 until 2009. “That’s the Disney way.”

But Disney is not the only company that has had to change an attraction to avoid offending today’s guests.

At Six Flags Over Georgia, a ride that was originally based on the Uncle Remus stories of the old South was renamed “Monster Mansion” in 2008. The previous name, “Monster Plantation,” it seems, recalled for visitors scenes from slave life on a Southern plantation.

Gary Goddard, an attraction designer who worked for Disney in the 1970s and early ’80s, said that changes to rides are expected but if the modifications don’t make the attraction more thrilling and fun the ride suffers.

“I’m not against change,” he said. “I’m against change if it makes it bland. If it keeps the spirit of the ride and makes it more fun, I’m for it.”

Indeed, the Pirates ride has also been injected with some Hollywood pizzazz.

Characters from the multi-billion-dollar movie franchise starring Johnny Depp were added to the ride in 2006. An animatronic Depp, in full pirate regalia, later replaced the frightened woman in the barrel.

It’s normal for theme parks to modify and upgrade attractions, primarily to increase return visits.

But Disney’s Anaheim park — one of the nation’s oldest theme parks — faces a unique problem when rides that have been around for decades are overhauled. Hard-core fans who grew up with the attractions feel like a part of their childhood is being erased when attractions are altered.

Todd Regan, a Disneyland fan for more than 30 years and author of the Disney website MiceChat, said he received dozens of angry, even, hate-filled responses when he wrote on his website last week that he supported the removal of the bride-auction scene.

“It’s very interesting how some people are justifying a scene of human trafficking in an attraction,” he said.

One of Regan’s readers responded to news of the changes by promising to boycott all Disney parks forever. “No joke. With the other changes in the parks I didn't like, I accepted them and got over it, and but not this time,” the fan wrote.

Scot Squires, 43, a marketing professor and Disney fan who has visited every Disney theme park in the world, described himself as a “traditionalist” who is still fuming that Disney revamped the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at California Adventure Park to incorporate Marvel superheroes.

But Squires said he has no problem with the change proposed to the Pirates ride, saying, “Times have changed and I think Disney is just trying to keep up with the changes.”

The ride is among the park’s biggest attractions — a popularity no doubt boosted by being the basis of the long-running “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise now in its the fifth installment. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced films have grossed $3.7 billion worldwide.

And while some previous modifications have sparked fan outrage, they have not hurt Disneyland’s attendance numbers or damaged the popularity of the ride, which has welcomed more than 400 million riders since it opened, according to the park.

Martin Lewison, a theme park expert, does not expect that the latest change will hurt the Burbank company’s bottom line either.

“Some people will be intrigued and some disappointed and the net effect will be zero,” said Lewison, a business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York.

For its part, Disney defends its actions. Asked to comment, the company cited Marty Sklar, who helped design several of the original rides at the Anaheim park.

“I can’t think of a single attraction that has not been enhanced and improved, some over and over again,” Sklar, 83, said in a statement. “Change is a tradition at Disneyland.”

Still, previous changes have not been welcomed by everyone, even within the Disney company.

Francis Xavier Atencio, a longtime Disney ride designer who retired in 1984, clearly was not happy with the changes made in 1997 when the trays of food were added to the attraction.

“Nobody asked me but my reaction was this is Pirates of the Caribbean not Boy Scouts of the Caribbean,” he said in an interview with D23, Disney’s officials fan club. Atencio also wrote the lyrics to the ride’s theme song, “Yo, ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me.)”

Rothschild, who now heads a design company called Far Out! Creative Direction, said he tries to remain philosophical when an attraction he has created is modified or shuttered.

Rothschild helped design StormRider, a ride that opened in 2001 at Tokyo DisneySea and simulates flying into a storm. It was closed in 2016 and replaced with a simulator ride called Nemo & Friends SeaRider.

“Even the greatest shows on Broadway eventually close,” he said. “I’m not personally offended or have negative feelings. Times change. Audiences change.”

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

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