Why is Pirates so Good?

Theme park fans are an interesting bunch of people. We consist of everything from blue collar vacationers, hipster theatre auteurs, oh-so-serious designers, cosplaying character seekers, internet attached reporters, teenage thrill seekers, retired day-trippers, and every combination in between. And in this diverse group debates rage on pretty often  around themes of what themed entertainment should be, who it should target, and what its ambitions should be. Entertainment? Thrills? Inspiration? Escape? Community? Fun? It’s interesting that in a world that caters itself to so many different niches of preference, that one attraction comes up again and again as a shining example of common ambition. Seemingly almost everyone continually agrees that the original Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is one of, if not the, best themed attractions ever built. So what makes Pirates so great? Why does it work so well? 

Well, of course no discussion about the excellence of Pirates would be complete without taking a moment to state an obvious reason; the ride is a showcase of technical and artistic perfection. The set and lighting design is wonderful and detailed, the sculpture worthy of galleries, the sound design multilayered, the building comfortably cool, and the acoustics better than even many attractions and theaters built today. Those features are foundational to creating any truly great entertainment experience. It’s tempting to say that that is the reason Pirates always stands out: the scale of the sets, and quantity of animatronics, duration of the ride, effectiveness of the effects, and the overall detail create an immersive environment that just really excels. And while all of that certainly plays a role, I think the idea that lavishness alone creates amazing attractions is a bit of a myopic conclusion: one that seems to be playing an increasing role in the design of new attractions and even more in their publicity. The idea that absurdly grand environments and obsessively detailed story are what make something immersive is true, but is also a limited understanding of the word ‘immersion’.

  See, ‘immersion’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in the popular lexicon – being used to describe everything from the upcoming Star Wars land and groundbreaking theatrical experiments to cell phones screens and restaurant menus. Even in the theme park world, the word can be overused and find generic meaning. Even when it is used to describe experiences that genuinely transport, this is often achieved narratively, architecturally, or with details, props, and backstory. And while there is no doubt that those techniques are crucial they also only get Pirates halfway to being the flagship that it is. So much more comes from the design of the attraction structure itself and the way it immerses the rider into those environments and story. Pirates chooses to immerse you viscerally and emotionally in the way the experience unfolds. It uses the physical space and the progression of that space to affect techniques of hypnosis and patterns of dreams to immerse experientially, not just thematically. And that focus on the experiential story of the audience itself is what makes all the difference.

Experiential Immersion

So what does it mean to immerse experientially? It’s a bit difficult to describe in one simple sentence, but it consists of the kinesthetic and emotional impact of the design. It involves the pacing, structure, and very layout of the attraction. These three factors are so essential to the success of an experience that if changed you can take the same sets, same story and end up with a completely different result with a different impact. Conversely: change the story and sets but keep those three factors and you end up with an attraction that is different in theme and details but largely the same experience.

Venturing away from Pirates for a moment, consider the late California version of Tower of Terror and its Tokyo counterpart. Different sets, different music, different people, different story, but its not a different experience. It hits all of the exact same beats: a slowly structured queue that builds suspense and a ride profile that waits until the last possible second to unleash the pent up adrenaline. The whole experience is constantly creating tension and then releasing it in a very similar pattern. And it’s done relatively effectively. Riders come out having had the same journey regardless of plot details or specific aesthetics. This is not to say that aesthetics, detailing, and such don’t matter at all (people tend to slightly prefer the Tokyo tower to the California one as the architectural and narrative complexity make it a bit more interesting), just, the overall experience isn’t really affected nearly as much as when changes to structure, pacing, and layout are made. 

Consider Florida’s Tower of Terror, generally considered to be far and away the best, and largely sharing sets and story from the California version. You wouldn’t think that the vehicle moving slowly forward and backward all of a hundred feet and exiting in a different location than boarding would make much of a difference: or adding a garden to the queue. But in context these changes are huge. The pacing and emotions are changed. The queue in the long derelict garden, especially because of its layout, functions as an induction the other versions don’t have (more about inductions in a bit). The suspense in that garden starts building 30 minutes before it does in the other versions of the attraction and the audience is simultaneously isolated from the rest of the park 30 minutes earlier as well. The elevation changes and disorienting curves subtly inform this message: you’re going somewhere else, you’re going on a little bit of an adventure. Even the positioning of the hotel to the queue reinforces the desired tone. You enter from the side, virtually stumbling upon the abandoned entrance as an urban explorer rather than approaching it from the front like a guest. All of this drives home the suspense, adds a much stronger eeriness element, brings the audience into the world, and even changes the story, at least the story of the audience member. This changes the impact of the preshow, which changes the impact of the boiler room, and so on. Deliberate inductions are missing from many otherwise great attractions, and it’s one of the reasons Pirates, especially in Anaheim, is as good as it is. The fifth dimension sequence accomplishes similar aims. While the other towers will ratchet up the suspense, Florida’s will genuinely unsettle and surprise. Where before the guests thought they knew the drop was going to happen any second, now all bets are off. It’s just a few moments of forward movement in a weird hallway, but the overall effect can not really be overstated. Finally, the attraction unloading in a different location than it began in a different orientation than it began drives home the disarmament. 

Hypnosis and Dreams

That was a long detour. Back to Pirates. The pacing, layout, and structure contribute so much to its success. It’s experiential immersion. The ride, famously, was built in a space previously designed for a much smaller walkthrough attraction, and the first half of the ride is essentially only there to get you out of that building and into the bigger building housing the ride the designers wanted to build. That is potentially one of the best ‘problems’ a ride design team has ever been lucky enough to face. To fill that space the ride was built with a huge indoor bayou, and intricate system of caves, along with an extended denouement that all contribute to the experiential immersion that functions, whether by accident or design, as a pretty good hypnotic progression.

What makes entertainment experiences transcendental is that blissful sensation of forgetting yourself, of being in another world, of flow, or in other words: trance – when the power of a moment is so absorbing you lose your self-awareness. The same feeling you get when arriving someplace after a drive and not really remembering how you got there, or when you’re immersed in a creative endeavor. That is essentially, if not exactly the same thing as hypnosis. It’s taking a talkative, excited, somewhat-stressed, and distracted guest and putting them into another state entirely: one that is much more focused and relaxed. Pirates, I think, does this better than anything else. The transition from distracted guest to rapt attention and back again will usually happen in an experience regardless, if the content is decently interesting and the time period long enough, but without proper guidance from the designers guest can feel jarred, disassociated, and not entirely present until the experience is already half over. And moreover they may never enter that crucial state: their mind still slightly somewhere else.

Moreover, Pirates uses symbols and language of dreams to achieve this. Many theme park theorists have analyzed Pirates as a story of time travel, as you enter in modern times, see dead pirates first, and somehow end up centuries earlier in the Caribbean. Quite a few have even seen this in-media-res plot structure and semi non-sequitur as a flaw and sought to fix it (See the other Pirates attractions around the world, especially Paris). But, I personally agree much more with the view that it functions as a dream, (if you’re a fan of explicit story, perhaps the dream of that bayou resident playing bits of the theme song on his banjo before you go down the falls) and is a better attraction because of it.


Earlier I mentioned inductions. An induction is the first phase of hypnosis. It’s the process of taking someone from their normal, everyday alert state into the beginnings of trance. It generally involves a lot of relaxation, breathing exercises, soothing words, as the person is gradually guided into the very focused, relaxed, awake-but-not-awake state that hypnosis is. In some forms, in the middle of this, the hypnotist will do something very controlled but jarring to cement the moment of transition.

All attractions, as well as lands, and most any change in environment will have a transition period of some kind as a guest adapts from one to the other. Often that transition in the theme park world is focused on thematic transition and not emotional, and in the day to day world is completely ignored.  An induction is a transition that deliberately and specifically seeks to control that that environmental change and use it to affect the psychological state of the audience to prepare them for the experience to come. In the theatrical world this is the role of traditional features such as the dimming of the lights and the overture or the main title sequence: cues to the audience to prepare to pay attention and settle down and prepare their emotions. 

And that’s one of the reasons why Pirates works so well: the physical layout, pacing, and experiential structure of the attraction deliberately direct that transition from real world to imagined and turn it into an induction. 

Starting at the beginning, there’s the entrance tableau as you walk into the building: the most non-diegetic, theme-breaking, modern-theme-park-design-theory heresy one could probably imagine sitting inside the entryway to one of the greatest theme park attractions ever built. Why, in the name of Walt, is there a channel of boats inside a supposed historic New Orleans building with a bird advertising the ride to follow? From the perspective of the explicit story and theme it violates every rule and makes no sense. But, experientially it makes perfect sense.  It functions as a clear indicator that your journey is about to begin. It’s a pleasant welcoming space. And when you look at all those happy faces floating past, it’s telling you you’re going to have a really good time too. The repeated conclusion you reach when examining Pirates is that it is an attraction that prioritizes the overall visceral experience, the experiential immersion, over all other factors again, again, and again. And that is really why it’s so good. 

Immediately after the tableau is the passageway into the main loading space. When addressing layout, this is the first of many instances it comes into play. Forced compression and opening is a technique used often in Pirates to great effect. Tight passageways that open up to larger spaces not only give the effect of the open spaces being larger than they actually are, but psychologically are great transitional spaces: tunnels from one environment to another. 

This passage opens onto the bayou and the main loading area. Again explicit story is sacrificed (it’s suddenly night time) for psychological effect: in this case very much replicating the experience of walking into a theatre and taking your seats. Which is the perfect cue for the area having just walked past a marquee, down a darkening hallway, into a large space with rows of seats waiting to be filled up. The bayou is undoubtably one of guests’ most favorite parts about Pirates. It’s huge, it’s unexpected, it’s cool, tranquil, original. The slightly curved waterway bending around the restaurant creates a multilayered environment that adds realism and a sense of place. The guests in each attraction are scenery for the other giving a real sense of life. The fact that it’s boats sailing gently past diners is another use of clever experiential cues. Both have connotations of calm and leisure. It’s a symbiotic relationship where the ride makes the restaurant peaceful (and boosts the value of the food by $20) and the restaurant conjures relaxing imagery for the riders. This is the first stage of the attraction’s masterful induction. Everything is crafted specifically to calm the guests and make them feel safe and comfortable. Hell, the very next thing the riders pass is a man playing them lullabies on a banjo. The metaphorical dream begins right about now.

But the ride also realizes that the audience might be feeling a little trepidatious around this time. After all they know Pirates are supposed to be lurking, and that long relatively action-less float might have begun to breed some minor anxiety. The physical layout of the attraction seems to acknowledge this and capitalize on it as it becomes darker and narrower and curves sharply around preventing anything of the upcoming space to be seen. Simultaneously the darkness of the narrow passageway psychologically cues the subconscious and can be interpreted as the onset of sleep. This process simultaneously calms and causes people to focus: they’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. You’ll notice that right around this time most talking has ceased, and the audience is beginning to be in the moment. Up ahead is the first sign we’ve left the real world behind and are entering the dream world as a talking Skull and crossbones fills the field of view centered over the approaching void. He quite literally warns us of what’s coming, as if the rushing water and delighted screams in the darkness haven’t already signaled it: rushing water also a subtle cue for sleep. It’s a brilliant move though, as he acknowledges the anxiety the audience is likely feeling and prepares them for it. And with that, much like a stage hypnotist’s sudden movement of the head, the boat plunges down the waterfall, “falls” asleep: quite literally immersing the audience into the dream world with water and darkness. Sudden events cause people to pay attention and with any luck the audience is now firmly in the moment as stage one of the induction sequence wraps up. I want to stress the importance of physical movement in an attraction, and how it affects the audience. Just like different camera moves in a movie can convey different feelings, the same is true with rides. In this particular case not only does the downward fall signal the beginning of a new storytelling sequence, but it somatically lets the guests have a moment of release. Any tension and anxiety they’ve been feeling is let out with a couple of screams and douses of water as evidenced by the relieved laughing that almost always follows allowing them to be more fully present for the rest of the content to come. 


In hypnosis, after the induction comes the deepening. This is a stage where the initial trance that has been established is, well, deepened. You have their attention and now it’s time to fix it in place. This stage is crucial. The audience is in the moment but it wouldn’t take a lot to wake them up and then have to start all over. Deepening can be thought of almost like a second induction: taking people from the fragile boundary of trance to a more secure place.

After the plunge the guests find themselves in a small bending cave that opens into another waterfall in a larger space. Another use of forced compression signaling the exit of the process of falling asleep and letting the dream emerge. Just like in real dreams the dream of Pirates evolves from fuzzy details of color and light to more and more fully realized scenes: static tableaus in the caves of the mind will eventually resolve into realistic visions where one might even question if they’re awake. After the second fall the boat weaves around these caves, surrounded by water and these tableaus. The falling water is calming and assists in the task of deepening. The tableaus capture the audience and ask the audience to engage with the experience. 

This is an important point. By creating static tableaus, the designers call on the audience to interpret what is happening on their own. To look around the scene to gather clues and build their own story – which brings the audience further into the world – requiring them to pay attention to everything and be mindful. It’s the same exact strategy a hypnotist, therapist, or guided meditation would use: listen to your breathing, feel the fabric of the sofa on your legs, notice what shapes are forming in front of your eyes. Except in this case it’s being used to bring the audience out of themselves: pay attention to that skeleton, what is it looking at? Why? Where did that gold come from? Oh look they’re playing chess, did they die that way? Oh wait it was a stalemate, I get it, etc, etc. The audience is forced to become part of the experience and stop thinking about the world outside. The abundance of novelty requires it. It’s interactivity without any buttons, computers, touchscreen, or gizmos in sight. Pirates continually uses this strategy throughout the ride, the lack of much explicit story guarantees that, but it’s in its strongest form right here. I hate to use a cliche, but sometimes less really, really, is more. The presence of this lengthy deepening sequence gives the audience the time needed to become immersed in the world, forget themselves, drastically increasing the impact of what is to follow. The boats flow down that narrowing and darkening cave, suspense building. Just like that hypnosist might count backward from 10 to signal the moment of arrival of the fully entranced state, the narrowing straight path is a visual countdown signaling that the crystallization of the dream is arriving and to be prepared. It’s also another use of forced compression, again cueing transition and making the space beyond seem bigger. It’s an agonizingly delicious tease thats been foreshadowed for several minutes now and it all culminates in one of the biggest payoffs in any attraction anywhere: the battle.

As an aside, all of the above, is one of the reasons the Florida version of Pirates isn’t nearly as satisfying. In Florida, the induction and deepening are squeezed and cut drastically and while the argument can be made that the queue takes their place the fact is that queues are rarely capable of functioning anywhere near as effectively as a ride system (Florida’s tower of terror being one of the rare exceptions). Especially in the case of the Pirates queue in Florida, while it is quite well detailed and immersive in a thematic sense, there can be not control over the pacing of the guest through it, and spatially it is largely homogenous. Therefore there is precious little the space can do to affect the emotional state of the audience, especially when compared to the California version. Additionally once on the ride there isn’t as clear a demarkation between the load and moment the ride actually begins nor as long a length of time to bring people into the world. You immediately transition from fort to caves with no real separation and are never really put “to sleep”. The cave sequence still functions as a decent, if short, induction, but since it’s short and there is no deepening stage at all the ride feels like it begins with the subsequent battle sequence. This is really how inductions work: they essentially become the portion of an attraction that is forgotten in service to the rest of the experience. And that’s why Florida’s version of Pirates is so less satisfying: it skips deepening and heads straight to the main course. The placement of the drop messes with the careful psychological sequence too. You’ll recall that in Disneyland the drop functions as a way for the audience to relieve any anxiety they might be feeling: it’s a release, it ends in laughter. It works similarly in Florida but that changes the effect of the battle sequence that follows. In California leading up to the reveal of the Wicked Wench you are in a moment of suspense. You’re being teased relentlessly. You’ve been called on to imagine whats going on around you, you’re 100% engaged in the world, and are straining to peer through the darkness to see what’s ahead and then the scene just unfolds and overtakes you. Meanwhile in Florida, you’re laughing. You’d been teased for a short while about something coming and the drop relieves that tension. You’re ready to pay attention to what’s ahead but have nowhere near the same energy about discovering it. While the scene is still physically impressive, it doesn’t wash over you in the same way because the payoff has already happened a few seconds before. It’s effectively the beginning of the ride rather than the middle. This is what experiential immersion is all about in contrast to thematic immersion. Florida has the more “immersive” queue from a thematic sense, and some more impressive scenery, but since it doesn’t take advantage of it to immerse experientially, it has less effect. 


The main body of the Pirates attraction, from battle to the town burning, is the easiest portion of the attraction to explain. It’s fantastic because it’s impressive as hell. Amazing sets, sequences, animatronics, effects, etc. It’s spectacle. And now that the attention of the audience has been carefully obtained, the spectacle itself keeps it. Nevertheless though, even more effort is put in to put it over the top. For example, the design calls on the audience again to be involved in the story and help create it. The sets can not be fully taken in from one vantage point and the guest must look around to take it all in: eyes bouncing from scenic cluster to cluster examining the relationships and drawing conclusions. Contrast this to many modern attractions where scenes are spoon-fed to the audience with extreme precision and timing one at a time, shutting down their engagement instead of developing it. The beauty of the classic attractions is the audience gets to soak in a world (they’re immersed), developing an illusion of free choice and more happening than there actually is. This isn’t to say that highly choreographed rides are bad, but that that choreography needs to be judicious in its application so it doesn’t appear as choreography. A great way to do that is with pacing. Pirates, again in contrast to many modern attractions, relishes its variance in pacing. In the sequences we’ve already talked about repeated forced compression and openings along with changes from extremely twisted to nearly straight sections of track all give variation to the experience: establishing demarkations in the plot. Even in the body of the attraction you have the exciting battle, a slightly cooler interrogation, then (in the modern version) Jack Sparrow hiding. Then things get a little bit more exiting with the large auction and more exciting with the kinetic chase scene. Then things get quiet, too quiet, as we approach (in another moment of forced compression) some alley cats and a drunk unthreatening pirate. Then the huge climax unfolds with the burning of the town and full musical chorus. There’s a progression of repeated teases and payoffs that gradually get bigger until the climax. This variance in pacing keeps the audience on their toes and engaged: always looking around corners and wondering what’s next. Many modern attractions discard the tease for just a sequence of payoffs, but as everyone knows sex without foreplay is rather uninspiring. 


After the climax comes the denouement: straight out of storytelling 101. The climax leaves an audience excited and energized and fully in the moment. The purpose of the denouement is to wrap up the loose ends of a story and slowly bring the audience back to the real world. Many attractions have some sort of denouement. Think of the hitchhiking ghosts, Indy after the crashed boulder, etc, though these are more buttons than denouements. In the attraction world it’s more common to have a button than a denouement because of time constraints – a button being just a little something extra after the main story is over to signal the end. Like a chocolate mint that comes with your check at a restaurant or the “bu-da-da dum!” that happens after the final sustained major chord of a dramatic orchestral piece. Pirates is unique in that it has an extended denouement of not just a button but several scenes. Keep in mind that this is a psychological denouement, not so much of a story one – something that manifests issues in the Florida version of the attraction but the California version mostly avoids as we’ll see in a moment. Indeed many of the criticisms that Pirates gets (when it does get criticism) focus on this portion of the ride (the prison, armory, and ascent) as a flaw as there is no true “ending”. Designers sought to fix this in several versions of the attraction, but I think it actually works to the attraction’s benefit. The extended denouement acts as the awakening from the dream we’ve been in the whole time. (Awakening also happens to be the term used to describe the gentle ending of a hypnotic state and returning to regular consciousness). 

Psychologically the scenes between the burning of the town and the lift hill give us time to rest from sensory overload and also act as somewhat of a surprise and added interest. The burning of the town is the climax and the logical ending of the attraction, but the ride keeps going (underpromise, overdeliver). Unfortunately in the Florida version this works against the ride as it sets up the expectation that the ride is going to continue except two seconds later you’re instantly in the unload station a bit bewildered and hastily expelled. It’s more like an abrupt slap in the face than a gentle awakening. But in California, not only are the denouement scenes extended, giving more time to settle, but the presence of the lift hill is a gigantic cue that the experience is about to end. The twisting, darker, and more intimate setting of these final scenes is a contrast to the gigantic open town scenes and mirrors the earlier cave sequences. It’s a bookended journey where even though the theming is different, experientially, spatially, the guests come out the same way they got in. The armory is a foil for the caves at the base of the falls: open but intimate, full of water, at the base of a waterfall. Guests may not quite consciously realize it, but they fell down asleep into this world and now it’s time for them to come up back to the surface. Walt Disney demonstrated his intuitive understanding of this in publicity for the attraction when stating that the only logical way to return from a journey down a waterfall was to come back up a waterfall. As the guests venture up the lift, away from the detailed scenery, the experience slowly fades away into nothing but a few whispers, and then the bayou reemerges bathed in sunlight or the glow of the lobby. The start of the journey mirrored a theater and so does the exit. The guests are being told through the experience that it’s nearly over and time to return. Finally the loop around the front of the tableau reorients the guests to where they are in space; they know they’ve been here before. And it gives them time to reflect on the dream.

So What?

It is this attention to and prioritization of experiential immersion that has kept Pirates relevant and popular all these years. Guests experience an elaborate, varied emotional journey that isn’t found in too many places. Pirates is an experience in the fullest sense of the word. Guests come up that lift hill into the daylight having been through something: they’ve lost their sense of time and are only now remembering the rest of the park and their day. And like was mentioned earlier that really is the goal of any themed experience isn’t it? To transport guests away from the sometimes difficult realities of their world, and into another, separate place. But Pirates not only takes the guest out of the physical world and into an imagined one, but takes the guest out of themselves as well.

This is not to say that thematic immersion is not important or effective. The lavish and spectacular environments within Pirates are what help enable the experiential immersion to occur and become the main course of the experience. Just, the body of an attraction has to be extraordinarily well setup for it to payoff as effectively as it can, and then again just as carefully exited. The lesson that can be taken from Pirates is that the smallest, quietest, “boring” moments matter as much as the loud and flashy ones. That decisions as seemingly as trivial as the radius and direction of a curve, or where a drop is, are not trivial at all but as essential and influential as each camera move on a movie screen. That how long you wait and the means you use to reveal a climax are as important as the design of the climax itself. That attractions need to work to hard to capture the audience’s attention before expecting it. That designers need to be constantly aware of not only how their designs look, or how the narrative is evidenced, or if everything fits in a desired space, but of how those qualities affect the internal experience of the audience and if that internal experience aligns with the narrative they’re trying to tell. It’s not enough to tell a story, the audience must feel it. The original Pirates of the Caribbean does that and does it well. Theme park fans intuit this and always want more. And I think, when these ideas are remembered, that’s when it’s done.

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