Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Case for the Florida Pirates

This is going to be a hard one to discuss, although it really shouldn't be. Pirates of the Caribbean, in Florida, is one of those rides - the first, in fact - which received a markedly inferior remake the second time around and much of the commentary surrounding the ride itself has been clouded by people falling all over themselves to damn the attraction for not being the first version. In the process of commenting on such cases the reviewers have taken so little time to assess that second version that some of the interesting things done with the attraction for her second incarnation are lost - valuable insights, especially in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, as this was the original creative team trying to weed out some of the compromises they had been forced to take due to the original ride's turbulent gestation.

We then our going to take up this subject in some detail, a true breakdown of the second incarnation of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, to better understand and expose her variations, reimaginings, successes and failures.

I would be remiss to not begin with an acknowledgment that in a way the deck was stacked to begin with in the case of the Florida Pirates, because by all rights the ride shouldn't exist at all. Had Walt Disney lived four or even five years longer Walt Disney World would have no doubt opened with Marc Davis' Thunder Mesa attraction complex, an insanely ambitious attempt to rework the Pirates of the Caribbean magic in a new idiom. Had this happened, perhaps Pirates of the Caribbean would never have migrated 'cross the Mississippi, or perhaps would have eventually done so in a far different form.

There is an additional problem with the notion of remaking Pirates of the Caribbean, and that is that the original attraction is the best ride ever built. There's just no mincing words here, human hands have never built something better. Everything you can hope to aspire to in themed design is in that ride, and riding it is a nuanced and staggering experience. Still, many of those things that make it what it is are also things that were out of the designer's control. Build a cellar for a wax museum? We'll make it a boat ride. Design a ride that's too big for the cellar? Put it elsewhere.... get Claude Coates to design something for the cellar. Then Disney got X Atencio in to write dialouge for scenes that were really just disconnected pirate business. Why again are all the pirates dead at the start of the ride? Well - what if you're sent back in time? ....It was a graceful, if desperate, fix.

Since these elements and more were things that the original design team were obligated to do rather than decided to do - call it the growing pains of the creative process - they would be less than inclined to repeat them in future variations, and exploring some of this is the purpose of this essay. Because the Florida Pirate Ride (all the sets have that stenciled on their backside) isn't just a cut down remake, it's really a wholly different creature. It may not be a masterpiece in the way that the Disneyland version is, but it is a valuable companion piece if we come to it with open eyes. After all, every East Coast kid grew up with the Florida Pirates and liked it just fine, even without a Blue Bayou and a longer drop. And many many more people experience for the first time Walt Disney's final creative triumph in the form of her Florida cousin each year, which ought to give one pause.

Indeed if it's possible to blot from your mind the mastery of the original attraction, the Florida version is still a fantastic ride. The modes and meanings of some of the story beats are however markedly different than deserve some further explication than they are generally afforded.


Overall Structure
The single biggest factor in determining the eventual shape of the Florida Pirate ride was its placement in a Caribbean Plaza in Adventureland instead of a New Orleans Square somewhere else.

It is commonly repeated that WED wanted something more exotic than a New Orleans setting for the East Coast version of Pirates of the Caribbean and as such did not repeat the Big Easy themeing. This may be true but I think there is a more pragmatic answer. Although it's not as if New Orleans is closer to California than it is to Florida, San Juan (where the fortress that would provide a model for Florida's facade stood) and the real Caribbean are a lot closer to Central Florida than New Orleans is, and if Disney had felt it were worth repeating the New Orleans Square they most likely would have considered it. The reason New Orleans Square was out is because so much of it's essential makeup had already been repeated in the Magic Kingdom park in Liberty Square. There was, of course, the Haunted Mansion, but even many of the New Orleans shops had been faithfully inserted in Florida. The One-of-a-Kind Shop became Old World Antiques, Le Gourmet became the Yankee Trader, and even the Silver shop was included. So it wasn't simply a matter of not wanting to replicate a New Orleans setting for the Florida Pirate ride due to regional tastes; any New Orleans area anchoring the ride would require a total reimagining from the ground up anyway due to what Disney had already installed in the park they were working with.

And besides, although New Orleans Square and the Blue Bayou were beautiful, they were quite different from the final setting of the attraction that was eventually built. Instead of waxen pirates lurking in shadowy New Orleans alleys as was the initial plan, this ride really took place in the Caribbean, necessitating some supernatural location jumps in the original version. Why include the supernatural element at all and just start the riders off in the town the pirates are attacking? This has some real sense to it and this is indeed what was done.

Now I've already spoken before about the myriad charms of Caribbean Plaza, which is a masterful and romantic extension of the aesthetic of the ride, but the area gets too little credit for how brilliantly it ties together the attraction experience. Although it is an amazing conjuring trick to transport spectators magically from the port of New Orleans to a Caribbean island, in Caribbean Plaza it really does feel as though the courtyards, bridges, and verandas seen in the ride are lurking just behind the facades one sees at street level - as though it really did happen here. This means that the ride itself informs the pedestrian space and the pedestrian space informs the ride, a dynamic hardly ever achieved in themed design in such a dynamic way in the particular context of a ride that cannot be seen from that pedestrian space; ie one which is enclosed by four walls. In doing this, the setting and chronology of the original attraction is radically altered in such a way to iron out a lot of the post-design script doctoring and focus the attraction on the central event: the raid on the town.

The logic of the Florida attraction goes like this: as one approaches Caribbean Plaza and the Castillo del Morro, cannonfire can be heard coming from the Castillo. Entering through a sun splashed plaza, inside the Castillo everything has been abandoned although we can hear the Spanish soldiers elsewhere in the fort preparing from an incoming pirate assault. We can also, by the way, hear the pirates themselves, who seem as though they may always be just around the next corner. This dialogue still plays in the queue, although poor maintainence and the new Overture music drowns much of it out. "Captain! Los Piratas! They are attacking the village!" "Sound the alarm!" still floats down those stone corridors, albeit dimly now.

Arriving at the central Pirate's Cove area where the ships for the Castillo are built, spectators are loaded into escape boats which launch into a secret exit hidden in the hillside the fortress is built into (this idea is garnered from real Spanish fortresses). Just as the boats slip into darkness we pass the Moonlight Bay scene, where the threatening pirate ship may be dimly seen out in the water.

After a quick but exciting trip through the caves, where it seems some pirates had long ago buried treasure, we emerge safely out of the fortress but in the midst of a heated battle between the pirates and the Spanish soldiers. Slipping through the town under the cover of night we see the pirates sack and burn the village, finally escaping only after the pirates find the town's treasure vault.

Ghosts on the Open Sea
That is the ride experience of Pirates of the Caribbean as it opened in 1973 in Florida, and one must admit, compared to the all-over-the-place nature of the Disneyland version, where an inland Bayou somehow connects to oceanside underground pirate lairs and then on to a Caribbean Island, even if magically, the Florida show is a tidy package. But even in cleaning up the logic of the attraction, certain side effects of the original structure remain.

The above synopsis, for example, does not account for all the ghostly and menacing activity in those caves, a touch which makes perfect poetic and harmonic sense in California where the attraction seems as full of myth and mystery and superstition about the sea as any passage of Moby Dick. The famous Dead Man's Cove scene, although restaged by Davis in a more concise form, is not as haunting or as cinematic as its original version in Disneyland where the boats hug the shoreline of the grim scene rather than simply approach and then move away from it.

But since these skeletons are obviously "dead", ie inanimate, their inclusion does not violate the more realistic linear outline of the Florida presentation, even if the ghostly disembodied voice intoning "dead men tell no tales" does. Still, following this with the nicely restaged but even more overtly supernatural Hurricane Lagoon and talking skull scenes does push the attraction into confusing territory. This is where confusion surrounding the intention of the original designers to include or exclude a time travel storyline in the Florida ride gets murky, because in Disneyland the occurrence of these elements are earmarks of a developing open sea ghost story. I have no explanation as to their inclusion in Florida, because the attraction is already operating under the logic that the Pirates are attacking now.

What immediately followed in the 1973 ride was the ride's absolute poorest choice, which was to recycle Atencio's dialouge from the Disneyland version which achieved the magical transformation of time and place thanks to the "cursed treasure". These are the original dialouge lines:

"Ohh... perhaps ye knows too much. Ye 'ave seen the cursed treasure. You know where it be hidden! Now proceed at yer own risk. These be the last friendly words ye hear! You may not survive to pass this way again..."
"Dead men tell no tales.."
"No fear have ye of evil curses, says you? Ah, properly warned ye be, says I! Who knows when that evil curse will strike the greedy beholders of this bewitch'ed treasure!"
"Dead men tell no tales..."

Obviously intended to help the riders make sense of all this, in the Florida version these lines still played at the bottom of the downramp, now confusingly reduced in length to allow both voices to be heard in the abbreviated runoff area:

"Perhaps ye knows too much. Ye 'ave seen the cursed treasure. You know where it be hidden!"
"Dead men tell no tales.."
"No fear have ye of evil curses, says you? Ah, properly warned ye be, says I!"
"Dead men tell no tales..."

Instead of informing, these reduced versions are neither here nor there in content or context, confusingly referring to cursed treasure which we have not seen on the ride. The empty treasure chest at Dead Man's Cove clearly indicates that somebody has already gotten to the jewels and killed their own or another crew in the process. The whole scene is further muddled by the lack of the entire pirate underground lair presented at Disneyland: in that original context, "Dead men tell no tales!" clearly is a warning that the dead will not give up their secrets so easily.

In Florida, and I speak confidently here because this is how I interpreted the statement for years only having the Florida ride's context to work from, "Dead men tell no tales" seems to imply that the crew that buried the treasure were murdered to conceal the location of the treasure instead of the subterranean scuttle at a later date that Davis' scenic designs are meant to render. Because all we see to link the ghostly pronouncement to the evidence left behind is a beach strewn with bodies, "Dead men tell no tales" becomes a Disney version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Fifteen men on a Dead Man's Chest!"

No treasure left here....

Again, this does not seem to be the intention, and helps to draw out the suspicion that the "ghost" scenes were simply repeated for their fame and simplicity rather than for any reason of having a good reason to be in this radically altered version of the ride. Much like the stretching room scenes in the Haunted Mansion, which had to be radically re-engineered to be included in the Florida show since their practical purpose was no longer of value, these scenes simply were included because it wouldn't be Pirates of the Caribbean without them. However, sadly, it does leave a gaping hole in the logic of the story. Just what the heck happened to us on our way out of the fort?!

Through the Town
Now nobody discusses it much because of the Disneyland-centric nature of discourse about the attraction, but once through the problematic grotto scenes, the massive town scene - the reason for the ride to exist, let's admit it - is significantly better designed in Florida. Although to the untrained eye they're exactly the same, certain design eccentricities about the Anaheim show have been corrected , eccentricities which perhaps nobody saw fit to correct in the indecision about what to do with the Pirate show. The layout of the scenes in the town were originally designed to squish together into the basement dug for the walk-through version of the attraction in 1963, and although all the structural steel would be torn out and the basement re-dug to accommodate the expanded show, nobody seemed to alter the layout of the town scenes much beyond placing them outside the berm. I'm not sure I would have thought to do much either, but the cramped quarters downstairs under New Orleans Square did result in some odd placement which someone in WED recognized and adjusted for the 1973 show.

On page 29 of Jason's Surrell's book on the ride, a blueprint of the attraction can be observed which is meant to fit snugly into that basement (if you need further proof, go back to page 24 of the same book and compare the shape of that layout rendering of the walk through Pirate show to the shape of the blueprint in question). This is exactly the shape the final ride in Disneyland follows, and it has some oddities dictated by available space. For example, as the boats leave Bombardment Bay they tightly hug a tower of the fortress under assault as the boats proceed into the Well scene. But as soon as the boats turn, they're immediately into the Auction scene, and some of the action of the Well scene is seen from a slightly strange three-quarters view as a result, including Carlos' house with his wife in the window. In Florida, the track and layout is altered so that the Well scene is arranged facing the boats from left to right instead of skewing away from the boats as in Disneyland. Similarly, the scene is paced out better because instead of viewing the scene from a remove caused by the curving nature of the track, in Florida the boats approach the scene, move alongside it, and then exit the scene. Marc Davis or somebody else has placed a handsome two-towered building between the Well scene and Auction scene, replacing a simple wall with a small boat as the visual divider between the two scenes.

These changes anticipate the shape of the alterations for the Florida show, which is overall slower paced with greater space between those scenes which have remained. Every scene in the Disneyland show is atop the next; although the boats no longer move at the proper speed in California and so we spend longer than WED intended in each scene, there is less breathing space between one scene and the next. By placing that two-towered building between the restaged well scene and the Auction scene in Florida, our attention is allowed to momentarily wander, to move from the Well scene's dialogue to that big building, or maybe across the way to a dimly illuminated balcony complete with flickering lanterns and some chairs. When we enter the Auction scene, we see it first from afar, become oriented, then move in close. It provides a better showcase for each scene.

Another beat that the California show is poorer without but which was invented for Florida is the quiet moment between the Chase scene and the Fire scene. The reason it's there is a somewhat practical one; it is at this point in the Florida show that the boats' spur line, a side track under and behind the sets onto which empty boats may be pulled to be sent to the Maintainence Bay, branches off the Main Track. In California this happens in the Bombardment scene, but the extra moment passing the spur line entrance in Florida once again allows the attention to wander after the last turntable gag in the Chase scene (fat woman chasing the terrified pirate), and something wonderful happens. The ride suddenly gets very quiet and we may notice the moonlight illuminated tree, Yale Gracey's cloud projections cutting across the sky, and then focus on Old Bill with his rum talking to the cats. Old Bill is a Walt Disney World original designed by Davis for this quiet scene, and the way the attraction gets very dim and quiet right before moving onto its' loudest and most raucous section in the Burning City shows real sensitivity to highlighting the internal rhythms and paces of the show.

Later on, Old Bill ended up in Disneyland too, but his placement almost directly across from the last turntable in the Chase scene meant that this wonderful moment was lost; Old Bill is just another figure on your way through the ride. It isn't a total tragedy; the spaces between these scenes in Florida in a way make up for the quiet, contemplative mood of the start and end of the Disneyland show which has been sacrificed in the streamlined Florida version. That all of the complex textures and tonalities of the original attraction could not be carried over is unfortunate, but the greatly improved pacing of the town scenes does provide some measure of balance in an otherwise greatly reduced attraction.

Out the Door
One of the biggest problems with the Florida show was actually its most unique feature: Marc Davis' redesigned ending, replacing the climatic shootout in the munitions storehouse. Now the Disneyland final scene doesn't make much sense and neither did the Walt Disney World treasure scene, but at Disneyland the whole experience is aided by following the inconclusive shootout scene with a ride back up the waterfall and back to the Bayou, whereas Walt Disney World's version immediately dumped out into an unload area and guests rode a speedramp back up to ground level.

It's not as if the Treasure scene was poorly done; the gags were very funny if strange (a pirate rubbing his bare feet in strands of pearls, for example) and some of the immediacy of the shootout was retained by having the pirates firing their pistols wildly in the air, rolling around like Mexican Banditos having taken off with the loot. But unlike at Disneyland, these pirates weren't shooting at each other - they weren't shooting at anything, and the threat of being hit by a stray bullet was less about being between two groups of pirates who are increasingly poor shots than just being beaned by a stray lead pellet. Thus the threat of the scene was gone. And although everyone enjoyed looking through the trestled arch into the treasure room, one nagging problem remained - the whole town was still burning up around the Pirates visible in the background, so perhaps, like at Disneyland, their victory would be short lived. In fact, since there is no time travel and thus no way to escape the fire, the threat of the pirates is not resolved by simply getting off the boats and up a speedramp. So ironically while the Florida version of the ride did provide a resolution to the pirates story, it still was less of an satisfactory ending than its' original form.

Marc Davis often spoke of his dislike of the upramp scene at Disneyland and saw to it that all subsequent forms of the ride that he would be involved in excluded it. But perhaps it is telling that when given the opportunity to remake the original ride for Tokyo Disneyland he cut, shuffled, condensed - and did not bother to include his 1973 Treasure Room scene, but did replicate the Walt Disney World unload area, complete with another trip up a speedramp back to the daylight.

I think however that Davis' instincts were right, here, in one other capacity, which may not seem like much but which indeed colors ones perceptions of the ride to come greatly. Unlike at Disneyland, where the first sight one is greeted with upon entering the attraction is people waiting to disembark, by unloading passengers downstairs at Florida and getting them on a speedramp up out of the building, the boats return to the Load Area ominously empty!


In the final analysis it's sort of a fool's errand to try to say that the Florida show is comparable to the California show since it obviously is not, even if some of the design choices do show an increased sophistication on the part of WED. For example, the decision to create a highly themed queue in Florida is likely a practical one: if the length of the overall ride is to be greatly reduced, then the exterior of the attraction and the waiting area must be used to set up the story.

But this design restriction opened up a whole new world of themed design possibilities by forcing WED to invent the themed queue, and the Pirates of the Caribbean queue in Florida is still one of the best and most brilliant. Even today Disneyland suffers somewhat from the fact that most of her queues were constructed prior to this central moment in themed design: much of the time the queue takes place in tightly packed, carnival-style switchbacks outside the exterior of the attraction. This was, of course, the rule at the Magic Kingdom in Florida as well: anybody who ever waited in line for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Jungle Cruise prior to their slight increase of themed diversions in the early 1990s will likely remember how maddening and deadening those experiences were. On the same note, WED clearly immediately grasped the import of the richly themed queue and created one so brilliant for the 1975 Space Mountain that even today the act of getting to and from the ride is 70% of that attraction's appeal.

There are some minor exceptions here - waiting areas for shows such as The Hall of Presidents and the Enchanted Tiki Room (either coast) were quite elaborate as early as the 1960's, perhaps because designers thought that if the audience were standing in one place waiting for the show to begin they would require more opulent surroundings. And of course there were themed boarding areas which contained part of the expected queue line, as anybody who remembers Adventure Thru Inner Space or If You Had Wings will recall. But the notion of the wait in line being an experience and of itself was new and in a way it may be WED's greatest design breakthrough of the 1970's. So while the ride may leave something to be desired, the fact that it is prefaced by something so central a moment in themed design means that perhaps the Florida Pirate Ride deserves more respect than she gets. After all, richly themed queue experiences like The Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones Adventure or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey would be impossible without this supposedly "bastardized" version.

And I detect one more improvement in the Florida ride, which is the approach to the ride itself. In the 1967 version, the ride is hidden behind three sets of very plain doors and we take it more or less on faith that Pirates of the Caribbean is indeed back there. The Florida ride, however, looks and feels as massive and intricate as it will prove to be from the outside, a real call to arms to rush into the fortress and begin.

Then again those three doors and that sign hint that maybe the most extraordinary of adventures can lurk behind the most ordinary of doors; that we may, in effect, find any number of enchanted worlds by stumbling through an unmarked door down an alley or drifting to a lifeless and haunted part of a bayou. The California exterior hints at the mysticism and mysterioso qualities of that ride, the supernatural and haunted element which haunts us, too. The Florida ride is a call to adventure on a grand scale, but maybe in pulling all the kinks out of the ride, in a way, WED has taken a slinky and straightened it, made it no longer as fun. I think well above any missing figures or scenes or drops or restaurants, the most damning thing you can say about the Florida Pirate Ride is that WED has plucked the heart out of their mystery, made it somehow more like lesser rides. The 1973 version of the ride may have some admirable qualities, but it lacks the 1967 version's aspect of seeming to be like a dream - something that maybe you totally imagined. The literal minded 1973 ride lacks this quality and is innumerably poorer without it.


Pictures: Daveland.Com, Disney and More, Disney Pix, Pana Vue Slides, etc...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Take Your New Disney Friends Home!

Disney and Kodak have such an extensive and long term relationship that it often seems hard to separate the two. When Disneyland opened in 1955, Kodak was there on Main Street. A longstanding story has it that Main Street's pavement is red due to color testing experiments using Kodachrome - since the film stock tended to go more towards the red spectrum than blue, Disneyland's pavements were red, making Main Street photograph better (Disney tells this story on their guided tours, and like most of the information told there, one should take it with a grain of salt). Kodak even sponsored the 1959 "Grand Re-Opening of Disneyland". The ties between the two companies go back a long time.

Thus it's sort of hard to remember that there was a gap in Kodak's sponsorship of film and camera products and services at Disneyland, one that lasted right up until the opening of EPCOT Center with her big and expensive Imagination pavilion. When Walt Disney World opened in 1971, GAF was the film sponsor of choice on Main Street. GAF dropped out around 1976 or 1977, and there was a time when Disneyland and Walt Disney World actually had no film sponsor - those "Your Complete Guide to Walt Disney World" booklets actually had no little "Compliments of.." blurb in their lower left corner and the back page of the guide, traditionally a venue for the film sponsor's advertisement, highlighted upcoming Disney films. By late 1977, Polariod had stepped in, and they remained sponsors for five years until the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982.

Polaroid had much cooler stuff to offer than GAF - many Disney World people fondly remember the "Borrow a Polaroid Camera, Free.*" ads on the back of their late 70's and early 80's "Your Complete Guide to Walt Disney World", and Polaroid offered old-timey photo opportunities with instant results on Main Street, Caribbean Plaza, and the Walt Disney World Village (the Great Southern Craft Company probably opened in 1977 with the entry of Polaroid and existed mainly for its "Lilly Langtry Photo Studio", covered here on this blog).

But GAF - which stands for Great American Film, I kid you not (you'll have to decide for yourself whether it was or not) - had their own wacky offerings in their Walt Disney World sponsorship days, from the GAF Photo Trail (more here) to GAF Photo Tips. Well call me old fashioned, but my favorite thing about GAF at Walt Disney World was.... awkward advertisements.

Here's one from the back of a 1972 Walt Disney World guide, the earliest such guide I've been able to locate (these early slimmer guides featured a GAF advert on the very back page as well as the worst map of the Magic Kingdom imaginable):

You can click on these things for a more legible version. I love the text: "The scenic delights of Walt Disney World deserve the finest in photography. To insure natural quality pictures you can be proud of, we recommend the full line of GAF quality photo products." Call it my love of the Atari 2600 coming out, but I love and obsess over household items that have artificial wood grain applied to them. It's not so much a camp appreciation as it is a fascination with an era when products were still meant to be handsome showpieces, pieces of furniture as well as functional entertainment. At least I think that was the idea.

Here's one from a 1974 guide. Some kid traced over Mickey with a pencil. Maybe it was Andreas Deja. Probably not.

Look at all those handsome products... you used to be able to buy those Pana-Vue Slides everywhere at Walt Disney World in little strips like you see here, each themed to an area or even specific attraction. They were usually beautifully done promotional images, much better than any camera or photographer (then or now) could capture. And look - there's the GAF View-Master in its signature cardboard bucket; the blue projector is even included. Does anyone even make View-Master projectors anymore? And as we'll shortly see, the "Bring Your New Disney Friends Home To Meet Your Old Friends", an awkwardly worded corporate pitch if ever there was one, emerged as something like GAF's "message" to Walt Disney World vacation goers in the mid 1970's.

Our final example is from 1975, the year of the bicentennial, America on Parade, free showings at the Hall of Presidents, and more:

It may be the most handsome of them all.

Now the real reason I'm showing you all this is actually just to justify posting this little gem, which I've seen in numerous issues of Walt Disney World Vacationland and struck me as one of the strangest and funniest things from the early years of Walt Disney World:

I'm not sure if it's Billy's impossible, jellylike anatomy, his father (in a green business suit!!!!) looming in from the edges of the frame, or Billy's absurd bucktoothed smile and his exclamation of "OBOY!", but this cartoon just kills me every time. I start looking at Billy's arms in panel two and I simply can't contain myself. And while it's true that View-Masters have given me and the rest of the word many wonderful things over the years, this may be my favorite.

So there you have it, a totally basic overview of the absurd joys of GAF in the early days of Walt Disney World. They may not have given you Figment, but they did provide "Donald and Mickey Meet Billy's Friends", just another strange strange artifact from the Vacation Kingdom of the World's formative years.