Forgot Your Password Or Login?

Having trouble logging in?
Try clearing your cookie:

Disneyland Article
When The Mouse Roared Back Part 3

Pirates Of The Caribbean
Dlander In Time
October 7, 2009
October 7, 2009
So while things were heating up at Disneyland, what was going on over at a relatively secret location in Glendale where all the shows and rides found at Disneyland were created? The newly christened Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) was rapidly expanding staff to handle the massive project load that was building courtesy of the new management structure. WDI is unique in many ways, but one facet of the company different from most, was that it was completely project oriented. As long as there were funded projects, staffing levels accommodated accordingly. Over the decades of the 1960's through present time, these levels have had the appearance of a roller coaster. During the peak years when Disney was building EPCOT Center, there were over 4,000 employees. After EPCOT opened, there were no other projects on the drafting board, so massive layoffs took place, leaving only a skeleton crew of less than 200 just to keep the lights on in Glendale. What is an interesting sidebar to this is that many of those laid off former Imagineers started up their own firms that to this day provide design and engineering solutions for Disney and Universal. In fact, Universal's Islands of Adventure is the best Universal theme park, designed and built largely by former Imagineers (including yours truly).

WDI was separated into groups headed up by Show Producers who were responsible for the theme parks. In the mid-80's, it was a longtime Disney veteran named Randy Bright, who had started his career in the late 50's at the Park. Randy would then be followed by someone well known over the years; Tony Baxter. These individuals were charged with the creative direction of the Parks, and in keeping the traditions initiated long before by Walt Disney. A really significant event took place at Pirate's of the Caribbean in 1987. Over the preceding years, the animated figures had fallen into a sad state of repair both from an animation standpoint and from a figure finishing point of view. When the attraction originally opened, employees known as Figure Finishers actually applied movie-style make-up to the faces and hands of principal figures on nearly a daily basis. They were taught by someone who is well known in Disney lore: Leota Toombs. Eventually WDI (WED back then) was able to develop silicon-based paint that would adhere to the "skins" of the AA figures, to eliminate the costly practice of this effort. But during the monetary neglect of the 70's and early 80's, the damage was done, and the figures were a pathetic representation of what they once were. Then along came a young programmer named Davey Feiton, who had a plan to show the degradation in hopes of reversing the trend. I have a copy of the VHS tape of the result, and when I return to the US, I will convert it and get a copy of it to DLDHistory, as it is a brilliantly done comparison showing 1967 versus 1987 Pirate's, along with some narration. Just days before the attraction opened, Paul Miller went through the attraction with an 8mm movie camera, and filmed the boats and figures in detail. He also shot footage just days after opening with guests in the boats, which is the footage often seen in old Disney scenes of the attraction. But what was fascinating was comparing the '67 Minstrel figures to the '87 figures. When you look at how fluid and lifelike those figures moved in '67, you really gain appreciation for the men and women who were so far ahead of their time to develop technology so advanced. Davey was right in being appalled at how we had allowed the degradation to go so long and to such an extent. Figure comparison after comparison on the video just went on to show how dismal this once crown jewel had tarnished. Probably the saddest figure of all was the celebrated "Redhead", who had become a grotesque caricature of the once proud figure she once was. But, like a great Disney story, this one also had a great ending. Davey's video had it's intended effect, and Marty Sklar was appropriately appalled at what he saw, and he turned to Davey and to Randy Bright, and initiated the funding effort to make things right.

That little video also led to one of the many smaller, but fairly significant WDI projects of this period, which would be the 6-month rehabilitation (rehab) of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. This was the first significant rehab of this attraction since it's opening nearly 25 years earlier. We would have meetings discussing the various modifications that would be taking place during this rehab, and one memorable smaller change, was to a drunk pirate sitting on a bridge. Sitting with Randy Bright, he wanted the pirate who was holding a bottle in the Auction scene, to be able to rotate his wrist or arm, and pour some of the bottle ("Liquor") out into the flume next guests floating past in boats. We were tasked with making this happen difficult, but possible. Then Randy got excited and asked if we could make the liquid "smell like alcohol"! We drew the line at that. We did manage to make the effect happen by having a simple pump recirculate water from the flume to the pirate's bottle. You really have to watch the pirate to actually see him react to the Auctioneer, and "spill" his bottle into the flume. That has always been a hallmark of WDI; try to infuse attractions with so many sight gags that you come away years later wondering when that effect was "added", not knowing it was there all along. It was during this rehab that over 23 of the original animatronic figures were replaced with a newer generation of figures, including the pinnacle of Disney AA figures, what was known as the Sarcos figure. WDI had interfaced with a Utah based firm that was developing orthotics in the medical field, and jointly worked to create an animatronic figure that worked on compliant technology. It was the next step in the evolution of biofeedback compliance, and it allowed these figures far more human like actions and speeds than ever seen before. An early version of these figures was first installed at Disneyland, which was Abe Lincoln in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. The next two were pretty significant figures: the Auctioneer at Disneyland, and the Wicked Witch at the new Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida. The Witch figure was one of the best works ever done by the company, as the programming of her alone made her really come to life. I remember seeing her in full set mockup at the Disney Tujunga facility, and just being blown away by how for the first time she looked more like an actor than an AA figure.

Back at Disneyland at Pirates, nearly the entire interior was fitted out in scaffolding in order to replace the ceiling which was failing over the years. In some areas that scaffold was 4 stories in height. Along with the replacement of figures, the original and archaic animation system that controlled the figures was replaced to the current Disney system, and another subtle but important artistic mark returned. Over the years, as the lead Creative Producers came and went, they would leave their individual marks on their respective parks. I remember clearly a discussion where we were talking the creative path that Walt and his original Pirate's team (remember that Walt did not live to see the opening of Pirate's), had wanted to take, and there was one scene in particular that irked Randy. In the Well scene, the original intent was the pirates were dunking the Mayor to get him to give up the location of the town's treasures (the Mayor's wife can be seen on a balcony pleading "don't tell him Carlos, don't be cheeekin'") and the rest of the town council lined up waiting the same fate. Again, originally, in front of the well there were treasure chests opened up but spilled out were maps and documents and papers and such, instead of treasure. Randy's predecessor had gone and replaced all the original paper and maps with mounds of brightly lit treasure and gold coins. That completely changed the storyline, and it made no sense if you thought about it at all. Now the Well Captain was angry and demanding the mayor tell him where the treasure was (uhhh, it was right in front of you). In other words, the storyline now did not match the scene, and at WDI, the story was everything. The treasure was quickly replaced with the original set of maps and papers, and all was right in the world of Imagineering again. There were other subtle improvements as well, with an addition of effects planned for the upcoming EuroDisney theme park under design development at WDI. One addition was a shadow effect depicting sword fighters that splayed eerily up on a wall, and another was an improvement in the original flame effects. There was an attempt to bring the actual Sarcos AA sword fighters that are in Pirate's in Paris to this rehab, but the cost exceeded the budget, so the shadow effect had to suffice. With respect to the flame effect, the old way utilized an amber sheet of thin plastic that was blown by a. hidden fan. This was replaced by a new flame-proof fabric that had a far more flame-like movement when blown by the same fan.

However one of the projects that took quite awhile to get right, several years in fact, was the replacement of the original boats in Pirate's. The first boats were wood frame and extremely well built, but with typical theme park usage (16 hour average daily, 365 days per year for over 20 years), they were ready for replacement. Timing was such that the original boats from the WDW Pirate's (with only 15 years of usage) were also failing, and had designed a replacement boat with arrivals due in shortly. Disney maintenance saw a fortuitous opening, and ordered the Florida boat design as the Disneyland replacement, and placed a rush order for two boats to be delivered for testing. The new boats were of a twin hull fiberglass design, including an additional row of seating, making them longer and substantially heavier than their predecessors. Operations was delighted, thinking there would be an increase in capacity, and maintenance was happy with the double hull design, believing this to be a well designed stout boat that should give a full 20 year service life. When the first boat arrived, a preliminary inspection was completed, and then we put it in the flume and launched it into the ride. The boat serenely floated down past the beautiful Blue Bayou restaurant, and quietly nosed down into the first drop, but instead of moving down further into the ride, at the bottom of the run-out the boat came straight out of the flume, riding up the rock wall nearing hitting a maintenance technician. That incident was the start of nearly 3 years of countless modifications to the boats, the flume, reprogramming of the ride mechanics, you name it, it had to be changed. The new boats were longer, considerably heavier, causing them to be slower. The boats also weren't quite as well made as expected, developing leaks and forcing maintenance to remove them from the ride every evening for nearly a year, building special cradles to hold the boats after flipping them upside down to drain the water out until the water intrusion source was located (the rear bumper mounts). As for the expected added capacity Operations hoped for due to the additional row? It took nearly three years for the "Pirate Boat Task Team" to get the ride back to the original hourly capacity of the old boats! The new boats cost the park a loss of several hundred per hour in capacity, which is the worst possible outcome for a ride like Pirate's. But eventually, good old American ingenuity and hard work resolved nearly all of the issues, and all the while, few if any guests knew anything was amiss by the way, the slogan of WDI is, "We Create The Magic"

and that's the truth
Attractions Referenced

Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln

Pirates Of The Caribbean

Restaurants Referenced

Blue Bayou Restaurant

Top Of Page
Solution  Graphics

Copyright: (c) 1997-2023 by ThrillMountain Software is not associated in any official way with the Walt Disney Company,
its subsidiaries, or its affiliates. The official Disney site is available at
Troubleshooting Info:

BrowserBrand: IE
Mobile: NO
LocalHost: NO
BrowserAgent:CCBot/2.0 (
BrowserCurrentPage: /disneyland-article.aspx
Login: 0
FilterBy: 0
SortBy: 0