Muse #4: Pirates and When Intellectual Property Actually Helps

“This is the day you will always remember as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow.”

Jack Sparrow

Many theme park critics point to a surge in intellectual property, or “IP,” as the culprit responsible for the downfall of Walt Disney World. In this context, “IP” generally refers to Disney inserting any story and characters that they had already introduced in a medium beside a theme park attraction. Instead of conjuring something new that matches Walt’s innovative spirit, they say, the all-too-frequent introduction of IP into the parks destroys the telos of Walt Disney World Resort and will eventually convert it into a mere marketer. These critics almost always see “IP” as a cash grab.

To be fair, “IP” doesn’t always work out so well. “Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid,” for instance, simply rehashes the film’s story without covering all the mechanics of the animatronics. The ride makes it evident that its primary purposes are to appeal to the Ariel fanbase of preschool and elementary school girls and to help with crowd control by compelling some guests away from the main attraction area. Even though the queue, particularly Prince Eric’s castle, is truly exquisite, you can easily see that Disney simply needed to avert people from Peter Pan’s Flight and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

However, one of the attractions provides a classic example of how IP can actually prove itself valid in spatial storytelling. Walt Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, was a smaller version of the same attraction at Disneyland. It did not refer to Disney movies or characters that preceded it; this ride was distinctly its own.*

Pirates of the Caribbean does not have an elaborate story. Rather, its focus is on elaborate immersion through architecture and special effects, without many, if any screens. In Disney World, the ride starts in an eerie cave holding skeletons in several positions, whether clutching the wheel of a ship in the middle of a storm or lying on the beach while animals look on. Then you drop down a waterfall into a sea battle, complete with simulated cannonfire, gigantic pirate ships, and threats from a pirate. After this comes the scene in question.

The scene still portrays a raid of a small town, complete with “fire,” singing, and terror. However, this scene originally boasted human trafficking (selling women for marriage against their will) and audible sexual innuendo. The pirates would negotiate which girl they wanted to pay, which is where the still-popular phrase (at least among hardcore Disney park people) “We wants the redhead” originates. Of course, I wouldn’t say that pirates are above those sins, but Disney had chosen to portray the real connection between pirates and those mature sins to children instead of protecting their innocence. Disney markets itself as the latter, so to leave the sexual content intact would be false advertising and inappropriate for children.

Thankfully, Disney listened to guests’ concerns and organized a team to supervise changes to the ride. As Disney Dose reports, “The first change didn’t come about until the 1990’s when park guests began questioning the attraction’s displays of lewd behavior of the pirates towards the village women. The most scrutinized being the scenes of pirates chasing women throughout the town and a leering pirate searching for a woman who hid in terror in a nearby barrel. While these displays certainly paint an accurate visual of some of the dark history of pirating violence and exploitation of women, many guests questioned how appropriate this display was for a family theme park. This is when the Pirates of the Caribbean ride underwent its first change to fit in with the expectations of the culture at the time. The prize of the pirates chase was changed from women to food. The pirate that once chased a woman was revamped to depict a woman chasing a pirate with a stolen pie. It was decided that a hungry pirate was much more fitting than a handsy pirate for this family friendly attraction.”

The change was much-needed and did improve the ride, but the humor it suggested still stood in sharp contrast with the still-intact auction scene. This is where Pirates‘ present IP, the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, steps in.

Of course, the film franchise still refers to the ride, like the guard dog holding the jail cell keys in his mouth or the famous song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” However, they introduced a far more elaborate story with an incredibly distinctive tone. Through Jack Sparrow (not in the original ride), there is much more emphasis on wordplay and ironic humor, while the films also acknowledge the evil brutality real pirates often convey. As such, the films provided the vision that the ride desperately needed, and they provided an excuse for Disney to alter the ride substantially. Now, Jack Sparrow flees from Captain Barbossa in the ride, hiding in a barrel and among mannequins while Barbossa hunts him down. Gone are almost all traces of the sex trafficking scene; instead, the redhead embodies the personality of Elizabeth Swann from the movies. In the conclusion, the evil pirates lie locked and abandoned in jail, while Jack Sparrow maintains his wisecracking personality as he sits casually in a rocking chair surrounded by treasure chests.

The IP controversy still continues to this day, especially with the introduction of Cosmic Rewind to the new World Discovery neighborhood at EPCOT. However, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride owes a large debt to the Pirates film franchise in maintaining family-friendliness. Therefore, while IP has clearly done some harm elsewhere in Walt Disney World, it does not completely deserve its ugly reputation. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to be the redhead now? She’s awesome.

From Disney Wiki

*Direct duplicates of attractions aren’t considered implementation of extraneous IP. Rather, they serve in the crucial role of weaving a thread of consistency among different Disney parks, giving each park the Disney trademark.

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