The History Of Disneyland's Pirates Of The Caribbean: A Yo Ho, Yo Ho Look Back At The Beloved Ride

Pirates in jail, dog holding key in Pirates of the Caribbean
(Image credit: Walt Disney World)

While there are many iconic attractions at Disneyland one of the most popular has to be Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s an attraction so popular that it spawned Disney’s first successful film franchise based on one of its rides. And while the ride, at its core, has remained unchanged for over 50 years, it went through a lot of changes to become the ride it is, and more than a few since then.

On March 18, 1967, i.e. 56 years ago, Pirates of the Caribbean opened at Disneyland. It was the first major attraction in the first land added to Disneyland after opening, New Orleans Square. It’s the ride Disney CEO Bob Iger says is his favorite. So let’s board our boat and sing along as we dive into the history of Pirates of the Caribbean.

It's a Small World

(Image credit: Disney Parks)

Two Attractions From The 1964 New York World’s Fair Inspired Pirates Of The Caribbean

Originally Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t going to be a ride at all. The first concept for what became Pirates of the Caribbean was for it to be a wax museum that guests would simply walk through rather than ride through. This evolved into a plan for a series of little scenes that would tell a story, but still using basic wax figures.

It was the work that WED Enterprises did on the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair that changed things. Imagineers worked on four different attractions for the fair, two of which would significantly influence Pirates of the Caribbean. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln proved that a full-sized human animatronic was possible, and It’s a Small World developed the boat system that would become the ride mechanism. Together, the attraction we know today was born. 

Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color

(Image credit: TWDC)

It Was The Last Attraction That Walt Disney Was Directly Involved In

Claude Coats and Marc Davis were the two primary designers of Pirates of the Caribbean, and Walt Disney tended to let his people do their jobs when he trusted them enough. However, Walt would always have his own opinion as well, and everybody paid attention and wanted to know what Walt thought.

Unfortunately, Pirates of the Caribbean would be the last attraction where anybody would know what Walt wanted. He made one of his last public appearances at Disneyland when New Orleans Square opened in the summer of 1966, and Walt would pass away in December of that year. He actually never saw Pirates in all its glory, as the ride didn’t open until three months after his death.

Pirates of the Caribbean building at Walt Disney World

(Image credit: Walt Disney World)

Walt Disney World Was Never Supposed To Get Pirates Of The Caribbean

When Magic Kingdom was being developed for Walt Disney World, several of the attractions from Disneyland were carried over to the new park, but one attraction that didn’t make the trip east was Pirates of the Caribbean. The feeling was that Florida, being on the actual Caribbean, had enough actual history regarding the age of piracy that a fictionalized ride had little to offer.

Instead, Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland was going to get the Western River Expedition, a new concept that would celebrate the classic idea of the American West in Florida the same way Pirates gave guests in California a taste of Gulf Coast history.

However, the Western River Expedition wasn’t built in the original Magic Kingdom, as the decision was made to hold off and make it part of a future expansion. Before that could happen, however, guests began to complain that the new park didn't have a version of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the idea was so popular that the attraction was put in instead.

Redd and the Pirate Audction at Pirates of the Caribbean

(Image credit: Walt Disney World)

The Ride Has Changed With The Times

While the core ride of Pirates of the Caribbean has not undergone significant changes in over 50 years, the ride has seen a variety of small updates to deal with issues that have popped up as new generations have experienced the ride. In 1997, a sequence that saw pirates chasing after women (one assumes violent reasons) was changed so that pirates were now chasing after the food the women were carrying.

In 2017, the “Wench Auction” scene, which showed one pirate selling women, including an attractive redhead, to another group of pirates, was changed, and the redheaded victim became Redd, a female pirate character.  

The Movie Based On The Ride Inspired The Ride To Include The Movie

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

(Image credit: Walt Disney Pictures)

The biggest changes to the ride, however, took place in 2006 when elements of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise were added to the attraction that had originally inspired it. The ride now tells the story of one group of pirates trying to track down Captain Jack Sparrow, as Sparrow is on his own quest for a hidden treasure. 

One particular item on display at Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean that's worthy of note, as related to the films, is the chest of gold coins from the first movie. Early in the ride, you'll find the recognizable chest with its gold among the treasures surrounding one of the long-dead pirates. While one might assume that the chest is a replica, it is, in fact, the actual gold chest used in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland

(Image credit: Shanghai Disney Resort)

Shanghai Disney Resort’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: Battle For The Sunken Treasure Is A Completely Different Ride 

The three versions of Pirates of the Caribbean found at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris are largely the same, but Shanghai Disney Resort’s version of the ride is something entirely different. It has a completely original storyline based on the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, with Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones taking major roles. While there are animatronic characters, the focus of the attraction from a technology standpoint significantly revolves more around ILM-designed computer effects. 

The original Pirates of the Caribbean attraction used cutting-edge technology at the time, which is still impressive today and is widely regarded as one of Disney’s best-ever attractions. Even watching video footage of the ride, it's difficult to argue.

Nothing is forever at Disneyland, and attractions are always changing or evolving, but Pirates of the Caribbean has stood the test of time better than most other theme park attractions. It’s certainly not going anywhere anytime soon, and while the ride will probably undergo more small changes in the years to come, it’s unlikely to change so much that fans won’t be able to recognize it. 

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.