Thursday, April 23, 2015

Treasure Enough for All

In 2006, Disney inserted Jack Sparrow and a few other characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean films into the rides that they were adapted from. This overlay proved controversial.

Even the professionals who are responsible for the films found it unsatisfying. Here's a quote from screenwriter Terry Rossio's account of riding it for the first time.

"We...enter Adventureland. I can't wait to go onto the newly refurbished Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Back in the Bahamas, Johnny [Depp] had called us into his trailer to discuss the proposed changes he'd been sent. We agreed that the Jack Sparrow vignettes felt uninspired, and made suggestions on how they could be improved. The original Marc Davis sketches were all about the suspended moment, a particular situation that indicated a larger story (think of the dog with the keys). So we were really curious to go on the ride and check out the results.

"So we hop onto our boat, and some of it is impressive... But the vignette poses were still bland; to end the whole affair with Jack Sparrow sitting on a bunch of treasure, that's about as straightforward as you can get ([my writing partner, Ted Elliott] and I call it 'first draft theater.') It's not that captured moment style that Marc Davis did so well. Later we heard that the imagineers wanted to do something more creative, but ran into budget restrictions."

Remember, this man voluntarily put his name on a film franchise full of scenes like this one. Ouch.

It's telling that none of the critical theory written about the ride after 2006 even acknowledges the overlay. For example, Foxx's Fire in the Night, which is one of theme park academia's most celebrated essays, was written five years after the fact, but you wouldn't know by reading it.

Fortunately, it almost doesn't matter how many characters get slathered over the scenes. The overlay misunderstands the original ride, the film franchise, and theme park narratology so deeply that the brilliance of what used to be in its place tends to shine through.

Where it doesn't, the overlay feels more like graffiti than a bastardization. Skeptics are left feeling that, "One day someone will have the decency to fix this."

♪♫ One of these things is not like the others
One of these things doesn't belong
Can you tell which thing is not like the other
by the time I finish this song? ♪♫

Photo Credit

Personally, it took eight years of riding and four months of working at the attraction to understand the overlay's story, but I think I did it. That said, let me state up-front:

My Interpretation of the Overlay is Not Convincing

Nor is that my intention. Since I find the overlay ineffective, my goal is not to justify its existence, but rather, to analyze and learn from its shortcomings. To do that, I have to understand what it might have been going for.

So my interpretation is a sincere attempt to guess what its artists intended. As such, it sounds like a rationalization. While there is text to support it, it is, at heart, an exercise in silver linings.

But before I can explain my interpretation, we must first considerer the two stories that the original ride used to tell us. Contrasting them with the stories that the overlay now tells us will help us understand what makes the latter such a mess.

Please note that I am analyzing Florida's version of the ride, specifically. It's the one I'm most familiar with, and the only one I've been able to make some sense of.

The Stories of the Original Ride

Here's a ride-through from 2000.

In the Observable Story, the pirates work as a collective protagonist. This may sound strange--after all, they are separate people, performing separate actions--but in the context of the story, they're unified by an objective.

Other examples of collective protagonists include the townsfolk in William Faulker's short story, "a Rose for Emily," and the workers in Sergei Eisenstein's film, Strike, so this device isn't unheard of.

In the original ride, the pirates are unified by their objective to pillage, plunder, rifle, and loot the town. The citizens are their collective antagonist, because they're so touchy about being pillaged, plundered, rifled, and looted.

Chronologically, the pirates attack the island. Then, they overcome the defenses, allowing them to pillage, plunder, rifle, and loot. Finally, the pirates' antics branch off; some are doomed, whereas some celebrate amid their plunder.

This is one of the most evocative ways for theme parks to tell stories. They exist to motivate us through a location, make the location interesting, and arrange the events in a satisfying order.

Everything else is kept loose. Rather than explaining the location, the story lets us eavesdrop our way through it, and fill in the blanks as we go.

The original ride's Experiential Story is similarly loose. We are the protagonists. Our objective is to escape, unharmed. The pirates are our antagonists.

Chronologically, we escape through the caves. Unfortunately, it drops us into the worst place possible: amid the cannonfire in Bombardment Bay! A cannonball even splashes us, serving as a tactile reminder that this is not a movie or a dream, but rather, real life. The plot concludes with us floating through the town and back to the Castillo, unnoticed.

The Stories of the Overlay

Here's where things get muddled.

Whereas most attractions tell us two stories, the Sparrow'd Pirates tells four: three Observables, and one Experiential.

The first Observable Story is almost identical to the one in the original ride. The pirates wanna pillage, plunder, rifle, and loot a town inhabited by citizens who wish they wouldn't. Let's call them "the neutral pirates."

The second Observable Story is about an assortment of vengeful pirates, including Barbossa, the Interrogator at the Well, and the Pooped Pirate. Let's call them "the bad pirates." They're united by their objective of punishing Jack Sparrow because of...reasons. Their antagonist is Jack, who's either hiding from them, or inspiring an inexplicable degree of loyalty from civilians.

The Mayor, who's willing to not only be tortured,
but also endanger his wife, on behalf of a notoriously
duplicitous pirate, because of...reasons.

The third Observable Story features Jack as the protagonist. Let's call him a "good pirate." His objective, we can presume, is to avoid being punished by his antagonists, the bad pirates.

Remember, all three of these are told in the same time and space that it took the original ride to tell its single, loose Observable Story. It can get confusing, especially when the bad and good pirates' stories fall apart at the end of the ride. Let's consider their chronologies.

They begin with the bad pirates searching for Jack, and Jack eluding them. They escalate when Jack overhears that the bad pirates have found a key to the Treasure Room. They "resolve" when Jack steals the key and sings amid the treasure.

Except that's not much of a resolution, is it? The ride ends with Jack celebrating that he's locked himself inside of a room, in a burning city, that's full of bad pirates who still want to kill him.

The most satisfying way to react to this mess? Ignore the plot, appreciate the unmolested scenes, and marvel at how "lifelike" the Sparrowbots are.

Personally, I'm perplexed by his neck-foreskin.

Keep your ear open at the Unload Dock, and you'll notice that more guests disembark talking about Johnny Depp than they do, singing "Yo Ho." They're wowed by a cameo, not the ride.

You may notice I've only outlined three of the four stories that the overlay tells. It's this last one, the Experiential Story, that helps me rationalize my way into understanding the overlay.

The conflict of this Experiential Story is identical to the one in the original ride. We, the protagonists, want to escape unharmed from our antagonists, the pirates.

The chronology, on the other hand, is where things get interesting. Before we can appreciate it, we must first grab some context clues from...

The Queue

In Florida, the queue is set inside a Spanish fort--the same fort that the pirates attack in Bombardment Bay, once we're on the ride.

Named for a historical fort that defended against pirates
and other invaders

In her analysis of the original queue, Foxx chronicles the atmosphere as we passed through the Castillo:

"Both queues wrap around a little box of a room which features some supplies for the fort, in which is placed a speaker which plays the sounds of the Spanish preparing for an attack... it echoes down through those corridors just right to make you believe that the Pirates of the Caribbean could be around any of those innumerable blind corners, itself a brilliant setup for the attraction itself.

For theatrically minded cast members, this is one of the only scraps of text to guide their characters. In the midst of a pirate invasion, they are manning the Castillo and helping us to escape; they are Spanish soldiers.

And proud to serve, regardless of the fuzzy uniform.

So let's return to our Experiential Story. We are the protagonists, and we want to escape from the pirates.

As we reach the Load Dock, the pirates are attacking. Even though the audio that Foxx described no longer plays throughout the queue, we can see evidence of the attack in the cannon damage around Merge, which is opposite the ship on Moonlight Bay.

Photo Credit

The cast members--who are Spanish soldiers--are kind enough to sneak us out of the Castillo through the caves.

Again, this route deposits us in the worst possible location: amid the cannonfire in Bombardment Bay! Whoopsie!

Cannonballs splash us, reminding us that, hey, this is real, and if we're noticed, we could be hurt. Fortunately, we sail through the ride--and with the bizarre exceptions of Blackbeard and the Pooped Pirate, who has the key to the Treasure Room (don't ask me to explain them; I can't)--we're unnoticed.

Once we're past the danger, Jack breaks the fourth wall and addresses us. Hell, he does better than address us: he offers to share his treasure with us! "Drink up, lads! There's treasure enough for all!"

And that's when we're hauled back to the "safety" of the Castillo.

Isn't that a fun irony? The Spanish soldiers accidentally subject us to dangerous pirates. As we sneak through, Jack seduces us into a life of adventure and wealth and his own "silly" brand of piracy, and just when he offers to share the treasure, the lame-ass soldiers yank us away! They think they're saving our lives, but they're actually preventing us from having cooler lives!

Of course, there are many problems with this interpretation.

For starters, it's not clear whether Jack's inviting us or his parrot to share the treasure. While the line, "Drink up, lads! There's treasure enough for all!" is directed at a plural audience, the animatronic never addresses us as obviously as it addresses the parrot. Maybe Jack's drunk and addressing plural parrots...?

Also, we spend a lot of time stalled by the Treasure Room, and we don't accept his invitation because we know we're supposed to stay in the boat. It's safety--not narrative--that advances the plot.

What's more, it attempts one of the most presumptuous things a theme park can do.

It Assigns Us a Character Arc

In most narrative artforms, an arc is a device that helps us empathize with a character. When we meet someone who's trying to change some aspect of their life, it not only gives us something to root for, but it also provides us with a window into their mind.

How do they feel about this change? How will it affect their personality? How will it affect everyone around them? What are they willing to sacrifice in order to get it?

In theme parks--especially in Experiential Stories, which are about us--that's unnecessary. We are us. We've got all the mind-windows we need, thanks. We'll change at our own pace, Magic Kingdom. Back off. You don't know us.

...but maybe there's something to that idea. Maybe character arcs--like storytelling, itself--behave a little differently in theme parks than they do in other media.

For example, watch children who were afraid to enter the Haunted Mansion when they come off the ride. They've just been told two stories about how death is just another opportunity to play with their loved ones. Most of them wind up enjoying it!

Or heck, watch an anxious person "conquer" a thrill ride. What a revealing phrase! "Conquer!" A minute ago, they were trembling at the thought of riding a constantly regulated vehicle that's bolted onto a railway, and now all of a sudden, they're Genghis Khan! Still, the hyperbole describes how great it feels, and it expresses a change in the "character's" perspective.

So perhaps, in Experiential Stories, character arcs are less about providing us with insight and expectations, and more about arranging the attraction to manipulate our emotions. Bearing this definition in mind, let's analyze...

Our Character Arc in Pirates' Overlay

As the ride begins, we're vulnerable: wary of blind corners, dim lighting, spooky caves, and cannonballs. By the end of the ride, however, we're ready to set sail and swashbuckle and maybe even skuldug!

The Spanish soldier at Unload--who ruined our chance at a life of fortune--provides us with a subversive little thrill. They bid us farewell, thinking that we're just tourists, not even knowing that we're newly converted pirates.

Remember, I'm not saying that the overlay succeeds in making us feel this way. I'm merely guessing at its intentions.

What's more, I'm not claiming that this is an improvement over the original version of the ride. There, we arced from "vulnerable" to "roused." It was simple; letting us experience the tone of the stories without entangling us in their morals.

By contrast, in the overlay, the three Observable Stories stumble over each other to delineate bad pirates and neutral pirates and good pirates. The confusion climaxes when we arc from "vulnerable" to "pirate," and specifically, "good pirate."

Which is to say, we're not like the neutral pirates, whose bumbling has landed them in jail cell, awaiting a fiery, gruesome death!

No, we're much too clever for that! We're good pirates; the sort who think to lock ourselves in the Treasure Room, which is full of wood...and next to...the burning jail cell...


Nor are we like the bad pirates, who water-torture the Mayor! No, those guys are reprehensible! As good pirates, we'd sooner watch our friend, the Mayor, get water-tortured while...remaining loyal to us...yet doing nothing to rescue hi--oy. Nevermind.

At the merest mention of critical thinking, the overlay's arc collapses.

Regardless, it does have an arc--or at least suggests one--whose potential is exhilarating. By ending the ride with Jack inviting us to drink and share the wealth, the Experiential Story casts us in a role that we can bring home with us.

We are a secret society of pirates, awaiting our chance to sneak past civilians and villains alike, in search of mischief and adventure and fortune. And any time we think of the ride, we remember that.

That's one hell of a souvenir.

What's more, it wasn't in the original ride. It's exclusive to the overlay. Hopefully future attractions will follow its example, yet figure out how to explain it to us more clearly.


  1. May I suggest that this arc at least somewhat mirrors that of Pirates protagonist William Turner?

    1. That makes it easier for me to pretend the overlay is nuanced and well-intentioned, so yes, absolutely, you may.

  2. Good to see you back! I discovered this blog a couple of months ago and devoured it, and then my heart sank a little when I realized it hadn't been updated since last June. Nice to know it's not abandoned after all.

    I think you give the overlay a little too much credit, though. Disney theme parks have really lost sight of the Experiential Story in recent years, in pursuit of an ever more perfect Observable Story. Book Report Rides dominate the landscape. The new POTC is of course not a Book Report Ride by any stretch of the imagination...but I suspect this is only because the existing ride was too popular and high-profile to be rebuilt from the ground up. Other recent-vintage rides--Mermaid, Monsters, Nemo--are Book Report Rides all the way.

    So I don't think the overlay is trying to tell us a new Experiential Story. If we get one out of it, more power, I guess, but the intention was obviously to spoon-feed us another adventure of this so very bankable movie star.

    Granted, I'm speaking from the perspective of an Anaheim aficionado--our queue is not a Spanish fort and our load attendants are not soldiers helping us escape the pirates. They are in fact pirates themselves, and the assumption, if any, is that we are interested in pirates right from the start or we wouldn't be there.

    So yeah. I'm rambling. Don't mind me, I'll show myself out.

    1. How flattering! Yeah, I seem to update this blog in phases. I've got a few more left in me this year, so stay tuned!

      I happen to agree with your criticisms of individual rides and your concerns about the increase of Book Reports and the decrease of (effective) Experiential Stories, but that's one of the main reasons why I write this blog: to figure out the process.

      What are the tools? Where are they used? How are they effective or ineffective, and why? These insights might make it easier for artists to design parks in the future, and spare us a few Book Reports along the way.

    2. Unfortunately, all the insights in the world won't convince the upper-level decision-makers that excellence of design should take precedent over merchandising opportunities. I really feel like the Imagineers are being hamstrung by demands for brand imagery, and perhaps an assumption that guests are stupid/lazy and won't accept anything new or unfamiliar.

    3. Perhaps! But (1) that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for more, and (2) all the more important to understand how to use these tools to create something tasteful that also meets the Suits' short-sighted demands.

      For all the lousy things happening, in the past few years, the Magic Kingdom got a charming new Snow White ride and a magnificently nuanced Thunder Mountain queue. The Kim Possible scavenger hunt took an important step towards giving guests narrative agency in the parks, and a Pirate's Adventure took that even further. Test Track and Star Tours found some lovely shades of lipstick to slather onto their respective pigs. (Forgive my Disney World specificity; I haven't been to Land in a while.) Harambe got an expansion that's as rich as...well...Harambe.

      There are capable artists doing worthy work out there. Perhaps education can make more of 'em...?

    4. You just made me picture a Goth pig wearing black lipstick. Congrats for that?

      I'm not saying it's pointless to try and educate or inspire the next generation of creative types. It's just that they aren't the only ones you have to convince as long as the money people have the last word. Maybe if we're lucky, we can get enough members of the regular public thinking about these things and realizing that they don't want to spend upwards of $100 a head, plus airfare and hotel, to see nothing but rushed synopses of movies they already own on Blu-Ray?

      And it's not all bleak here either. You want narrative agency and Experiential Stories? Look no further than Legends of Frontierland, an honest-to-goodness LARP that Disneyland hosted over the last summer and is probably bringing back this summer. I'm frankly amazed they did such a thing. No one saw it coming.

      Over in DCA, Cars Land looks amazing and Radiator Springs Racers, besides being a perfect example of an Experiential ride, is actually three rides in one. So there's that. (I just wish all that outstanding effort had been spent on a more deserving theme. But Cars is a toy-seller! See what I mean about brand imagery?)