Batten down for the ‘Pirates’ invasion

For the last few weeks, after Disneyland has closed its gates for the night, a team of workers, including eight divers, has labored through into the morning in Frontierland and New Orleans Square, ferrying building materials to Tom Sawyer Island and sinking support structures into the floor of the surrounding “river.”

Meanwhile, at corporate headquarters in Burbank, Laura-Lee Hartung has been combing through her list of a select 700 guests, checking such details as whether Disneyland’s catering chef has prepared a menu that meets the needs of a visiting girl with certain food allergies. And Kevin Frawley has been lining up a cast of nearly 100 musical acts and other entertainers for a one-time-only show with a pirate theme.

The Walt Disney Co. has done hundreds of movie premieres through the decades, including several at the Anaheim park, but perhaps nothing quite like the extravaganza that will accompany the first public showing Saturday night of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” projected in 3-D onto a giant screen on Tom Sawyer Island. In addition to the care and feeding of some 2,000 guests (the 700 who bought tickets at $1,000 each -- proceeds benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of America -- plus 1,300 invitees), seeing to the safety of the estimated 25,000 fans who will line the black (not red) carpet along Main Street for a chance to wave at stars Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others, there are special issues connected to an outdoor showing of a 3-D movie.

Nearly 500 employees have been preparing for the premiere for more than a year, before director Rob Marshall shot the first frame of the film. For Hartung, in charge of ticketing and guest communications, Frawley, head of entertainment and talent, and 16 other Disney department heads, it’s been a period of being “joined at the hip, well, at the BlackBerry,” said Mike Kern, vice president of special events for production.


Their headquarters is a claustrophobic room crammed with blueprints, planning photos and mock-ups. They’ve dubbed it “the war room” and like officers at the Pentagon, they know how to keep their secrets, including how they decide who gets invitations and where they are seated (a dart board is involved, says one planner, quickly explaining that he’s joking) and how much the whole thing costs. Still, in a recent interview, key members of the team talked about some of what went into planning the first big, splashy premiere of the summer movie season.

A lot of effort was put into adapting the previously used outdoor screening set up at Disneyland to the demands of 3-D.

“The viewing angle for 3-D is narrower than what you get for 2-D,” explained Kern. A narrower viewing area meant that the seating area had to be extended over the water, hence the need for the divers.

Chief projection engineer Kevin Rosenberger needed a crane to set his projector on a 30-foot high perch separate from the seating.

“We make sure that the structure the booth is on is separate from the bleachers, so as our guests move back and forth they aren’t going to affect the projection,” says Rosenberger. The screen itself is 10 stories wide and six stories tall and is placed nearly four stories above the water line. And when the lights go down, they won’t be kidding around; nearly 10,000 lights will be turned off inside the park when the movie begins.

Before the park goes dark, premiere patrons will be treated to a lavish party that includes easy access to the park’s rides and a special menu of salmon, five-bean salad, mixed baby greens and baked sage derby mac ‘n’ cheese. The food will be served at restaurants on the west side of the park, which will be closed to other guests beginning in midafternoon.

True to Disneyland tradition -- and likely to the disappointment of many in attendance -- alcohol will not be served.

“It’s a Disney property through and through,” says Lylle Breier, senior vice president of special events.


Not that premiere planning is without cutthroat aspects, particularly when it comes to admission to the big event.

“Some people will offer me a lot of money, a lot of bribes,” says Bob Gault, vice president of special events for operations, cracking a sly smile.

“We want to make it clear that we do not accept bribes,” says Breier.

Adds Gault, “If we did, we’d have to walk the plank.”