Candid tales from Walt Disney World’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”
by R.C. Loveland, former Disney World Cast Member
Pirates of the Caribbean was the first attraction I was trained at. It was great getting to walk behind and on the sets as well in “staging” where the boats leave unload, travel the “up-ramp” and back to load. But it was annoying when people thought they could stay in and ride again like at Disneyland where you load and unload at the same point. The funny thing was when I was little I couldn’t figure out how the boats got upstairs. For some reason I never took into account the moving ramp you ride as you exit unload. What I thought was funny were the folks who always thought the drop was added after the attraction opened. How could they forget the down-ramp? I would then ask them: how long would it take for Disney to close the ride and dig down 15 feet (the height of the drop) and then rebuild the exact same ride only 15 feet lower? Think people!
Now I must admit, Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is far superior than ours. I guess it must have been the lack of space to build the full ride. I would have loved for them to have built the Blue Bayou restaurant. But they made up for it with the restaurant in the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot, though not to the level of the BB one.
Certain leads who worked there when I started liked to fill a trash can liner with water, go to one of the show bridges as the CM doing the last ride through at night passed by, and pour the water on them. I never had that done to me but I did fill the water cooler once with confetti and drop it on someone who thought it was full of water.
I worked with a girl who was there when, one night, the lead closed the ride up with a family in there. He apparently wanted to get out quick so he didn’t have a CM ride through behind the last guest like most rides do. He assumed the ride was clear and shut it down. This girl said a guest came out the door that leads backstage soaked from the waist down as she was getting ready to leave unload for the night. He was of course furious about it and his family was still in the boat. Don’t know what happened to the lead.
One day the Auctioneer lost his audio. The Auctioneer is a “101 figure” meaning that if he stops working we would close the ride for bad show. Well, he had no audio but everything else was working fine. The lead sent me back there to keep an eye on the scene while he called DACS (the audio/computer center for MK) about the problem. While I was back there I kept hearing a train whistle and train sound. It would get louder and louder and then cut out suddenly. After a few minutes the Auctioneer’s voice came back on and I returned to the office. I mentioned the train sound to the lead. He said someone at DACS had accidentally put the train FX tape from Mr. Toad into the Auctioneer’s machine by accident. I found out later that the ladies in DACS enjoyed playing tricks along with the mistakes that were made. I’ll talk about those in a future installment.
I have evacuated Pirates several times and one time I was the CM (cast member) who got into the water to push the boats and hold them at the exit points. I actually had a lot of fun with the guests as I moved their boats around. I chatted and joked with them. One lady asked if the water was cold. I said “yes” but at least it was only up to my waist. And at that instant one of the cannon ball effects went off (I was in the Bombardment scene) behind me and the splash landed on me.
Many people will remember when Pirates had two loading channels that guests boarded from and then floated into the ride from there. There were two sets of loading belts, each servicing one of the queue lines. Well, after a particular accident the ride was rehabbed (our word for being “refurbished”) shortly thereafter and one channel was boarded over and everyone loaded in the other channel from both lines. Here is the story of why that was done. And this is the truth. It was THE story that day and weeks to come. I don’t think this ever hit the papers: When there were two load channels there was a point where they met as the boats entered the ride. It’s right there where the first turn is into the cave. This section was called the “merge point” for obvious reasons. Well, Pirates had a VERY old system running it. It couldn’t really even be called a computer (or a PLC, Programmable Logic Controller, the common type system used on most rides now). It worked on a very basic logic system. And quite often when running two channels, the system would get a brain fart and send both boats into the channel at the same time instead of holding one boat on the dispatch belt and waiting for the other to clear the merge sensor. When boats collided that was called a “merge.” The CM’s would hit the e-stop button to stop the movement of any other boats and/or belts, walk down the center island and pull the boats apart (One CM, when asked how to separate two boats that had merged answered: “Spray them with the hose”; I clearly remember the day I was clearing a merge and heard a huge rip from the seat of my pants as I bent down to grab the boat. I was sure glad it’s dim in the loading area.).
Well, on one fine day a boy decided to put his hand in the water as they left the load area. Unfortunately the boats merged and his thumb got cut off. The merge was cleared and apparently the parents didn’t know what had happened when the CM’s cleared the merge. But at the top of the down ramp (Exit pt. #1) the party got out of the boat with the child. Of course the tower operator is telling them to get back in the boat but they didn’t. Someone (the lead on duty, “K” I think) ran to the exit pt. Where the family told them what happened. Of course an Alpha unit (ambulance) was called and the ride closed. The final result was that the thumb was never found. Who knows what happened to it. When the rehab was scheduled they “did away” with one of the channels (It’s still there, they have a big decorative boat sitting in the place where the dispatch belt was along with a recorded spiel of a pirate telling you to stay seated and keep your arms and hands inside the boat.) and a PLC was installed. PLC’s are similar to computers as they can be programmed but they are specialized for their jobs (i.e.-you couldn’t load up Doom on them and play it in the tower). By the way, if you want to know, the Ride Control Room for Pirates is at the top of the down-ramp (at least it was still there a few years ago and doubt they have moved it). The office and “tower” are right above you as you leave the load area. Most of you have spotted the window of the tower. When people waved I usually didn’t wave back (especially if it were rambunctious junior high girls) but sometimes, just as the boat is almost out of the tower window field of vision I’d suddenly wave like mad to the person as they watched me.
There are cameras inside the ride though I won’t really say where. We’ve seen couples going hot and heavy and on certain nights (Grad Nights and Nights of Joy) we would place people at “Utilities” positions in addition to watching the cameras. Utilities were positions where CM’s stood inside the ride making sure guests don’t get out of hand. One position was at the top of the down-ramp. We would stand right behind the cave wall across from Hurricane Lagoon (the skeleton at the wheel). Always had women screaming when they suddenly saw someone standing there. I didn’t even jump out at them. People just didn’t expect someone to be standing there. But the best place for utilities was at the Haunted Mansion. There are no cameras inside the HM, just intrusion mats and alarmed exit doors that shut the ride down if stepped on or opened. There were 2 spots in the Mansion we stood. One was at the bottom of the Graveyard Slope and one was behind the vehicles at the Endless Hallway. We always caught teenagers trying to hold on to their friend’s doombuggy and keep it from turning. But this is a good way to break your arm. Also caught lots of people smoking. One day was “Junior Grad Day.” One of the worst events the MK ever held. I was glad they stopped it a few years after it started. Thousands of Jr. High kids were let into the Park on a special ticket. But this wasn’t a hard ticket event. They were there when regular guests were there. Well, I was at the bottom of the Graveyard Slope and I see this glowing ember pass by. I step in front of the car and shine my flashlight inside. This kid was smoking. I said “Give me the cigarette.” He said “What? I can’t smoke in here?” I said “You aren’t OLD enough to smoke.” The scary thing about HM is that it’s all wood through out. I know it’s all fire-treated but still, if you ever walk under the ride track and sets it’s just like being behind a movie set…tons of wooden beams everywhere. The final year of Junior Grad Days was the one where they had to close the Steam Trains (because of kids jumping off) and the Skyway (kids throwing stuff off and spitting on people). Unfortunately, some years later, while at Epcot, the higher ups thought that school field trips would help boost Epcot’s poor attendance and that was a complete fiasco. More on that in the future.
Back to Pirates: As for the making of Pirates politically correct, I think it’s terrible. To change a classic because of the historical representation of certain people. I still hate Disney for doing that. The scenes could use some updating/changing but not to make them PC. And here’s another fact I read, I think it was in the “E” Ticket magazine. When the designers were doing research for Disneyland’s Pirates they found out the leading cause of death for pirates wasn’t death in battle but rather, most of them died from venereal diseases caught in the brothels. Imagine what kind of scene WED could have created if they used that. The mind boggles at the possibilities.
Two CM’s I worked with told me this story about Ol’ Bill, the drunk pirate with the cats. One of them was left in charge while the lead went to lunch. The second CM at unload called her in the office and said a guest told her “Ol’ Bill’s hat fell off” when they got off the ride. Well, no biggie. It wasn’t a problem that would cause the ride to go “101.” A short time later the girl at unload called again and said “Ol’ Bill’s HEAD is still off.” “Head?” she screamed. “I thought you said his HAT!” Of course they cycled out the guests in the ride and fixed the figure.
One morning before the park was open I was sweeping and setting up the entrance to the ride when I watched a squirrel run into the House of Treasure gift shop and then come running out with a candy bar in it’s mouth. Smart squirrel.
There was a shed set up between the Jungle Cruise and the Pirates building that was for the storage of paint for the painters. It had a big sign that said “NO SMOKING.” Of course, walking back to the office, what do I see? A painter standing there, inside the shed, mixing paint and smoking. You quite often saw the building maintenance type guys like that who didn’t give a hoot about rules. Just did what they wanted. They were unionized. They wouldn’t lose their jobs.
Right behind the Pirates show building was the building for the parade floats and rehearsal rooms for various entertainment CM’s. One day I walked out of the boat storage area to the back lot. Out there I saw all theses CM’s dancing to some music with crosses strapped to their backs. No disrespect meant, but they looked like Jesus’s doing a dance number. For a second I was wondering if Disney was going to go religious for their Easter Parade. Come to find out, they were rehearsing for the new parade that was soon premiering, The Spirit of America parade (which I feel was Disney’s best parade ever) and they were rehearsing the scarecrow figures. Some years later the wooden “crosses” were removed and corn stalks replaced them. I’m sure some religious group got offended and complained and Disney bowed to their demands, just like at Pirates.
And when it rained hard, which is often in Florida, the Pirates building leaked like a sieve. One time I was at unload and water started pouring down from the arch way where you enter unload (technically, that arch is where the lower show building meets the upper building; there is a metal firewall there that is supposed to drop down in case of a fire). The guests were getting soaked from it. And then to make things worse water began pouring from a section of the ceiling above the people up-ramp. It was terrible. Come to find out, the gutters on top of the building had not been cleaned and everything backed up and poured into the building. They were quickly cleaned, but that was typical Disney: “Close the barn door AFTER the horse has gotten out.”
And speaking of a firewall. I heard a rumor that a firewall at Disneyland’s Pirates had rusted apart and a section of it fell on a boat killing a child. Don’t know if this is true. Anyone know for sure out there?
The only other serious accident I know of at Pirates was at the down ramp. There is a lock at the top of the down ramp that can release or lock the “boat stop” (brake) at the top of the ramp. It was there to prevent boats from running into boats at the bottom of the drop if they got stuck or backed up. If a boat was caught by the back wheels (the CM in the tower turned it on for some reason), the brake would not release because of the sensors not being able to “see” the boat. A CM would take the key to exit pt. 1, call the tower to make sure the bottom of the down ramp was clear, and turn the key in the lock mechanism to release the stuck boat. There was even a flood light at the bottom that the CM could turn on and see if the way was clear. One day a CM did not check to see if it was clear. He released the brake and dropped the boat. It rammed into the back of another boat that was caught on the flume wall at the bottom of the ramp. I don’t remember reports of anyone being killed. But when that happened, a second lock mechanism was installed at the bottom, and to release a boat two people (a CM at top; maintenance at the bottom) had to do it. I heard something like this happened at Disneyland. Can anyone confirm?
One of the worst times at Pirates was when they introduced 6-seater boats. The added row was to increase capacity. I’d like to know which idiot gave the green light to start doing this. One test boat was put onto the ride. We simply did not load it when it came by. But the 6-seater was a lot lighter than the 5-seaters so quite often if would not stop on the belts at load and unload. They put sandbags in it and it seemed to work fine. But then they replaced all boats with 6-seaters without any more research. The problem was that, when fully loaded with adults, a 6-seater was so heavy that it scraped the bottom of the flume and got caught on the switch gates and brakes. If the water level was raised the boats would jump the flume when they were sent empty. And there’s no way you can not send empty boats into that ride. It was a horrible mess. We had to specially load the boats and avoid loading the front row if it was only 1 group riding. They would get so mad. I don’t know if the problems have been rectified by now. Just goes to show you that quite often a great idea comes along but Disney would put it into use before thorough research. If the solution saves money or increases capacity (read: revenue) then some things can get ignored. Then the operators and the Guest Relations folks get the brunt of it.
Before the 6-seaters, two extremely heavy couples were loaded into a boat. There was no one else in there with them. At unload the boats stopped appearing and the tower saw a back up of boats in the monitors. All they could tell was it was after the Chase Scene. They went out to the ride to look and found that boat hung up on the flume wall in the Treasure Scene. The couples had climbed into the back and had slid to one side of the boat to neck. Their weight had lifted the front corner up and the guide wheel slid up onto the flume wall.
There was a guest who was seen, alone in a boat, masturbating. The lead apparently told a maintenance guy to go and clean it up. He refused. There was a couple going hot and heavy in a boat all to themselves. The lead and other CM’s in the office watched them go at it in the tower monitors. The lead then sent all available persons to go down to unload. When the couple got off they applauded them.
One day, there was a group of extremely loud cheerleaders in line. They kept doing cheers while waiting. It was bothering everyone in line. “B” was in the tower at the time and “E” was the lead. “E” was a very hot headed person and could rip you apart if you did something wrong. Well, as the boat they were in approached the down ramp, “B” got on the P.A. for that area (you could talk to certain areas separately) and quietly said “Give me a [some letter].” The office door to the backstage area was open and the down ramp P.A. can be heard when it is. Well “E” barreled in there like a steam-roller, grabbed “B”, yanked him out of the tower seat, pulled him out of the office and began to chew him a new you-know-what. Well, first, “E” left the tower unmanned which I’m sure got “E” in trouble because that’s a big no-no; “E” also chewed “B” out right next to the tower door so the other two leads and everyone else in the office could hear. The lead “M” apologized for what “E” did but “E” never did apologize to “B”. “E” was also the one, when they found out “B” was gay, put bottles of disinfectant at all the microphones at the Tiki Room. “B” told supervision who put an end to it. And then there was lead “C.” He loved to chew tobacco. And so did several of the other CM’s at Pirates. So they decided to make a communal spittoon out of a 5-gallon water bottle by cutting the top off of it. We went straight to supervision and put a stop to that. Talk about disgusting.
One time, the head of the Magistrate’s Wife (the lady in the window of the Well scene) was stolen. At least, that’s what maintenance said. Well, they didn’t have another head so they used the head of the toothless old pirate on the bridge in the Auction scene. Talk about ugly! She/he was like that for several months.
One last tale: I was at the turnstiles position one day. I was walking around the plaza keeping an eye on the line. At the end of the line were three little old ladies, I’d say early sixties. I could tell they were here together, not with their family….just 3 friends having fun. Well, they were whispering and pointing at my socks and laughing to each other. You know the costume: pants that go just below the ankles and purple and red striped socks. I walked over to them, leaned my head over and said: “If you like the socks, you should see the underwear.” Two of them burst out laughing, the third blushed a deep shade of red.
– R.C. Loveland July 29, 1997