Following Pandora’s opening at the Animal Kingdom this past May, we’ve entered the middle phase of current expansions at Disney’s U.S. theme parks. We won’t see Toy Story Land until next year at least, and the Star Wars Experience will follow in 2019. With the D23 Expo happening next week in Anaheim, fans expect more news about upcoming attractions. We’ve all heard the rumors, but which ones will stick? In the meantime, last week’s announcement from Disney about a beloved ride has caused quite a bit of controversy. The Pirates of the Caribbean auction scene is getting an update, and few seem happy about the change.
Pirates of the Caribbean initially opened at Disneyland in 1967, and Disney has made significant changes over the years for various reasons. They added Jack Sparrow and Barbossa to connect with the feature films and inserted a mist effect with Davy Jones (and Blackbeard later). A mermaid scene arrived due to the fourth film On Stranger Tides, though it never really clicked. The other significant edits revised a scene with pirates chasing women in a circle. The replacements were strange (chasing food instead) but made it safer for Disney. It’s those updates that have more in common with the upcoming changes to the auction scene (which will happen in Paris on July 24th). This excerpt from the Disney Parks Blog article describes the update:
“You’ll even discover that a familiar character is playing a new role joining the pirates ranks and helping the local townspeople ‘unload’ their valuables at the Mercado auction. In the U.S., this famous redhead will appear in a similar scene at the Magic Kingdom Park and Disneyland park in 2018 following a previously scheduled refurbishment.”
So why are Disney fans so angry about these changes? It depends on whom you ask. A recent Tim Grassey article on MiceChat about the moves drew a wide range of reasons in the comments section about why it’s a bad move. I can definitely understand the uproar, but I wonder if it’s really about the change itself or something larger. So many of us have an emotional bond with the parks that goes well beyond the normal vacation destination. They’re a part of who we are, so we’re protective and don’t want to see them change. To make sense of this situation, let’s dig into each reason for why many fans dislike the changes to the auction.
Before continuing, I should clarify that there is no right way to think about this issue. By stating my opinions on each reaction, I’m not saying that you’re wrong for having that view. I’ve seen a lot of contention between fans online about this issue. My accepting response seems to stray from a lot of you, and that’s okay. I’m not trying to push for any objective truth with this post. Instead, I believe this issue helps to illuminate overriding trends with fandom and Disney management. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s dive into the fray!
Reason #1: Historical Accuracy
A surprisingly loud chorus has brought up the topic of historical accuracy as a reason to keep the auction scene in place. The claim is that Pirates reflects what happened in the past and shouldn’t be sanitized for modern audiences. It’s true that pirates did roam the seas on ships in our past. However, I’ve never considered the ride a reflection of any real time and place. It depicts skeletons manning ships! There’s little sense that Pirates was designed to reflect actual events from the start. The scenes have more in common with swashbuckling movies than anything else.
Inspiration for much of Disney’s early attractions does come from human history. However, it presents the past in a way that’s entertaining and mostly glosses over the challenges. Pirates shows bad guys terrorizing a town, but they’re on par with mustache-twirling villains of classic adventure stories. There’s a reason that we end up liking them for the most part; the menace is missing. That doesn’t mean Disney should preserve the ride, however. Its connection to history is flimsy at best, and keeping the auction for that reason doesn’t make sense.
Reason #2: PC-Driven Culture
The most common negative response attacks Disney for falling prey to the PC police. Before diving into this tricky issue, here’s a typical definition of politically correct from Merriam-Webster:
“Conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”
The challenge with discussing political correctness is clear with the phrase “which could offend” in the definition. Each of us has a different idea on what’s offensive, so it’s difficult to determine what fits in many cases. That doesn’t let anyone off the hook, though. The Pirates auction scene depicts the sale of women to pirates as property, and it’s played for comedy. It isn’t a stretch to look at the scene and find it offensive. There’s also a fat joke thrown into the mix.
When someone decries the move for being too PC, what are they really saying? I’m not here to make judgments about anyone’s feelings on women, but it’s not a good look. Do you want to plant your flag behind a scene auctioning off women as slaves? I’m not looking for Disney to remove all rough edges from the park. Even so, adjusting the auction doesn’t seem insane. The concept art for the new scene presents the iconic redhead holding a shotgun and making citizens sell their goods. That’s hardly a safe moment with no stakes. Plus, it creates a powerful female pirate in a ride filled with dudes. Is that really such a bad thing?
Reason #3: Walt Disney’s Involvement
The original Disneyland version of Pirates was the last attraction where Walt worked on the design before he passed away. The videos of Walt describing the ride on TV show a childlike excitement for the new creation. It remains one of the greatest achievements from any Disney theme park. I can sympathize with fans’ desire for Walt’s work to remain. There are far too many examples of classic parts of Disneyland going away (i.e., Court of Angels). I share the desire to preserve as much as possible in that park (and Disney World too) from its earlier days.
I don’t see an issue with those that resist he removal of the auction because it moves Pirates further away from the opening day version. On the other hand, the ride has already changed quite a bit since its inception. If the updated scene retains the tone of the attraction, it could still work creatively. That’s a tall order for Imagineering given the history, but it’s not impossible to expect it. Losing another part of Walt’s presence is sad, so that is an unfortunate part of this move.
Reason #4: Changing an Iconic Scene
On a related note, the auction is one of the memorable parts of a classic Disney attraction. Changing it does feel more significant than the move with the chasing pirates. The auction is a centerpiece as you enter the town and stands out even within the 15-minute original version. Updates can make the parks even better, but I’m nervous when I see edits to iconic scenes. A lot of what I loved about EPCOT Center is now gone, and Disney seems ready to cut more. I grew up riding attractions like Horizons and World of Motion, and there’s still a sense of loss when I visit that park. It’s understandable how that feeling could exist for many longtime Pirates fans.
I strongly dislike the way that Disney brings out the quote “Disneyland will never be completed…” when it makes changes that might be unpopular. I even wrote an article about it. They haven’t done so in this case, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. This might be a rare case where I can see how it fits, though. They aren’t removing a beloved attraction for something inferior on the surface. The change deletes a part of a signature ride that is problematic for some riders. For the most part, Pirates will remain an incredible attraction for the foreseeable future.
The Larger Issue: Trends with Disney Management
Looking beyond this specific news, I’ve observed a growing discontent among Disney fans during the past few years. There’s excitement for Star Wars and other expansions, but it’s often drowned out by negative opinions on the overall direction from management. Price increases keep coming, and the leaders seem more interested in upcharge experiences than improving service. I believe the furor about Pirates springs as much from this environment as the specific reason that I mentioned in this post. Many fans don’t recognize the parks they once loved.
While I don’t mind the update to the auction scene, Disney should be careful not to alienate its core fans too much. Replacing the Tower of Terror with Guardians of the Galaxy at Disney California Adventure drew a similar outcry this year. Disney’s batting average with changes is not that great right now. Pandora is a rare case where Disney added a land and rides without losing too much. I’ll be watching the fan responses closely when news arrives at D23. Will the excitement return as more concrete plans appear? I hope that’s the case, but there are some warning signs. The parks are still amazing places, and their avid fans are intent on preserving them. Let’s hope that happier days are on the way in this community.
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