Flap Over ‘Pirates’ Proves a Treasure Trove for Disney


Looks like the last “yo ho” goes to the Walt Disney Co.'s swashbuckling marketing machine.

After getting keelhauled for weeks for its decision to clean up some of the naughtier fare in its Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland, the company got hordes of media and visitors to turn out Friday to view what amounted to little more than a new wrinkle in a venerable attraction.

Sure, pirates now chase chickens instead of chicks and gluttony has replaced lechery among the marauders’ many sins. But the curious will have to look sharp to spot the “politically correct” changes that have sparked so much controversy over the 30-year-old attraction.


“To be honest, I couldn’t really tell what had changed,” said Beth Harke of San Jose, one of the first Disneyland visitors to view the newly reopened ride, which had been closed for about two months. “This whole PC thing is really kind of silly.”

Disney caught plenty of flak earlier this year when it revealed that, in addition to overhauling the classic ride’s audio and control systems, it would perform some social engineering as well.

Critics howled at the park’s decision to tinker with the famous chase scene to depict pirates in hot pursuit of a good meal rather than terrified village maidens.

But if the lines outside the attraction Friday were any indication, the flap served only to heighten the public’s desire to pile into Disneyland to take another look. Both the Disneyland Hotel and the Disneyland Pacific Hotel had been sold out Friday and Saturday nights for weeks--unusual for this time of year.

“Any news is good news if it ends up getting people through the turnstiles,” said Steve Balgrosky, a theme park consultant with Los Angeles-based Economics Research. “Whether they meant to or not, Disney has succeeded once again in getting people to think about going to Disneyland.”

Pirates of the Caribbean was the last Disneyland attraction to be supervised by founder Walt Disney, who died before his spirited creation opened to the public March 18, 1967.

The boat ride, which transports visitors through a ghost ship, a treasure lair and scenes of bungling pirates sacking a Caribbean town, is viewed as a watershed for its creative storytelling and extensive use of “audio-animatronic” technology.

Now entering its fourth decade, the ride remains a favorite for legions of park visitors, which goes a long way toward explaining why some fans were outraged at the changes, politically correct or otherwise.

“Pirates of the Caribbean has become the standard by which our guests measure every other attraction,” said Marty Sklar, vice chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering. “But it’s not a museum piece either. We want to keep adding to it and improving it like everything else.”

Park veterans will notice changes to the infamous chase scene that might otherwise escape Pirate novices.

A hungry buccaneer who used to chase a young maiden now swipes at fleeing chickens with a net. A drunken brigand still stalks the cantina waitress--but only for the wine she now carries on her tray. A big-bellied pirate now holds a turkey leg aloft in triumph, rather than the woman’s shoe and negligee from years past.

And proving that turnabout is fair play, the portly village spinster still chases a hapless bachelor pirate, but this time with a rolling pin to reclaim the ham he has pilfered from her larder.

“Domestic violence, animal cruelty. It’s worse than before,” said a laughing Tricia Tarrach, a longtime Pirates fan who flew from Yuba City to be among the first to get a glimpse of the rehabbed ride.

Fans of the politically incorrect still have plenty to like about Pirates.

Female captives are still sold into domestic bondage in the bride auction scene while a coolie in a topknot takes in the action. Fat jokes, excessive drinking, torture, thievery and irresponsible use of firearms are still standard fare from stem to stern.

“There is very little that is politically correct about Pirates of the Caribbean,” said Disneyland Resort President Paul Pressler. “In fact, in order to be politically correct, we would probably have to close down the whole ride.”