REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean at Walt Disney World – Re-Imagining a Classic

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It’s been a couple of months since Pirates of the Caribbean has gotten underway after being in dry dock for an extended period, but now that we’re hitting some of the busiest days of the year the “refitted” Pirates of the Caribbean is again accepting crew members for current and future explorations. “Refurbishment” is probably not the best description for how Walt Disney World Imagineers spent a significant part of last summer. This most recent iteration of Magic Kingdom’s classic attraction is actually less of a refurbishment than a re-emergence.  While the enhancements could arguably be described as re-imagined,  they also effectively remain true to the attraction’s origins. The Imagineers have created a more real and immersive experience through lighting, texture, and color.

Your experience with the new Pirates of the Caribbean begins with the queue itself. As you enter the fort, the soldier dialogue makes it very clear that the pirates have arrived and the battle has begun. To begin the story even before a new crew member enters the attraction itself is a classic touch. This audio detail isn’t necessarily new, but it’s more prominent than it was prior to the recent closure. Continuing through the queue it becomes obvious that the lighting has been a point of emphasis during the update. There is improved consistency with the lanterns, and even the torch effects have been updated to appear more like a “flickering flame.” It’s subtle, but effective.

In the loading area there are still two lines — left and right. If you find yourself in the right loading line, pay attention. You just may be able to hear busy pirates nearby digging for buried treasure. And be sure to look ahead to the cave entrance as you embark on your journey. The cave entrance appears to reveal a difficult-to-discern but well-executed hint about the journey you’re about to embark on while also giving a small role in the story to the tower window.

As you approach the Grotto you still pass through the waterfall that now alternates between Davy Jones and Blackbeard. Blackbeard actually replaced Jones during the last revision so it’s good to see Jones again. The mermaid projections on the water are gone and that’s a little disappointing. But, to be honest, it was never a perfect fit to the overall sense of the story and felt somewhat forced by the feature films. That being said, you can still hear the mermaid song and, if you listen closely, maybe even a tail splash or two.

Dead Man’s Cove, for the most part, is the same. Originally, the back of this scene was open to provide a measure of depth, but during the Johnny Depp refurbishment this opening was closed off with sails and canvas material in order to better frame the scene. The space has been opened up once again and the depth has been restored. There is also newly scattered debris that contributes to an eerie and endless effect to the back of the cove. This decision adds more mystery for passers-by. The new expression of Dead Man’s Cove is one of the examples of how the Imagineers have pointed us back to the original Pirates.

The lack of light present in Hurricane Lagoon makes it difficult to notice that this scene has almost been completely rebuilt. The skeleton at the helm is much more believable than past versions. The lighting and colors so much more vibrant and immersive. Hurricane Lagoon had become tired over the years. The skeleton’s hair was matted and the colors were faded. In addition to the color and lighting, now there is quite a bit more movement — the skeleton’s hair moves with his clothes in the wind. The net effect is that Hurricane Lagoon is significantly more interesting and, ironically, more “alive”.

The newly refurbished Bombardment scene explodes with color. Again, the lights have obviously been adjusted, enhanced, or maybe just replaced — even the cloud effect on the back wall seems to be improved. Barbossa is now in his British uniform.  Although Barbossa only wore this uniform briefly in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, this draws more attention to him and that’s a good thing. It also appears that there is new or enhanced cannon movement. Additionally, the concussion cannons on the Wicked Wench and fort side have been re-activated. And is that gunpowder I smell?

Leaving the Bombardment scene you enter the seaport and the Well scene. Again, it’s subtle, but the well has been significantly upgraded. Look closely to see if you can find the first of three new Caribbean characters here in this scene. Beyond that, all new lighting contributes to an increased sense of drama. The coloration of the pirate faces in the prior iteration were exaggerated and aggressive, but that’s clearly been toned down to be more realistic. Now the colors are warm and less muted. Overall I would say that it’s much more theatrical or dramatic than before.

Similar touches are noticeable within the Auction scene, too, including a distinctly sweet yet musky projected scent that has been added. The auctioneer figure has been updated and has a great deal more fluidity. His facial expressions are enhanced and his animated movements more diverse. Watch for the detailed movement in his hand motion during “it be gold I’m after.” At a glance, the redhead is more believable than the prior show. New or enhanced lighting is obvious here, too. Overall the scene feels warm in tone and the light on the auctioneer casts a menacing shadow on the mercado wall which makes him somewhat Mephistophelian. Although the auctioneer is more devilish than ever, the redhead matches the intensity and has more noticeable attitude than before. And look for a second Caribbean character. It’s clear that the Imagineers are looking for greater authenticity and diversity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see female pirates in the future.

The cool blue tones in the Chase scene provide a nice contrast to the prior warmer ones earlier in the story. The pooped pirate is still holding a key to the treasure and there is now a visible map positioned on a crate to better support his lines as Jack Sparrow observes from a barrel nearby. Formerly, the map to the treasure was on the pirate’s leg – but it was very difficult to notice and consequently few people did. This helpful detail contributes significantly to the story later in the attraction. A third new and indigenous character appears in this area.

As you sail through the town, the night clouds are still visible and Old Bill is still loitering with the two cats and enjoying his rum. The Imagineers added a special touch here. Let’s just say that this pirate wreaks of a certain unsurprising “fragrance”!

The Burning City has always been an impressive scene but over the years it has been in dire need of this well-deserved refurbishment. Vibrant lighting, updated fire effects, and the addition of a wood burning aroma bring new life out of this scene. The torches now have the same “flickering flame” effect from the queue area and even the hairy-legged pirate’s jug and mug have been updated. Could this pirate hold clues about the fire and its origins? Be sure to look closely at the barefoot pirate with the pigs. This scene includes many new details for the most observant onlookers to discover.

And finally the Treasure Room comes into view. You want to talk bling! To start, it’s obvious this room glistens more than it ever has. For sure there is more gold but there are other enhancements, too. Once again, lighting effects have been helpful in giving this environment new life. Haunted Mansion fans will recognize the candle effect as reminiscent of Madame Leota’s seance candles. Also in the Treasure Room is the final piece of the story and how Jack found the loot. Remember the map in the pooped pirate scene? Piece the story together during your next cruise on the Caribbean.

Though subtle, the newest expression of Magic Kingdom’s Pirates of the Caribbean captures all the original glory of this famous pirate tale. And even though the California version can uniquely boast of Walt’s final touches, there remains in this mysterious grotto strong hints of its creator as well. Without dramatically altering the legacy or story, Disney Imagineering has done an outstanding job in giving us a re-imagined version of the Florida Pirate’s story. I’m thankful it’s a tale that continues to be told.

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