Treasure Island, another first-time viewing for me. Disney’s first full length live action film, largely credited with creating the pirate characterization we’re all familiar with. As far as Disney flicks go it’s much of what we have come to expect: lively characters, adventure, a faraway place, and a happy ending. If you aren’t familiar with the story -based off of Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s novel by the same name- a young boy sets sail with a gang of pirates, among them the famed Long John Silver, befriending and outwitting them along the way in a quest for hidden treasure. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. This is what you turn on when you’re looking for something easy. It feels recognizable even if you’ve never seen it before. The cinematography, music, and audio will take you back. Maybe back to films from your childhood. For me this film carried me back to Nick At Night or an oldie on AMC that my parents sat me in front of on a Sunday morning. Speaking of familiarity, let’s discuss pirates.
When I think of pirates, it’s Pirates of the Caribbean. And I don’t mean the movies, I mean the ride.
I hope that if you’re reading this you’re one of the actual millions who have had the joy of riding it. If you aren’t, it’s okay! You have a new item for your bucket list and something to look forward to. (You know, when Disney opens and life resumes.) I remember my very first trip to Disneyland and burying my face into my mom with my eyes closed through the entire ride because I was afraid of the dark. I was five years old and evidently not informed that I was sorely missing out. (Grandma and Mom, why haven’t we had words about this?) Since then it has become my favorite ride in the park. I’ve been on it so many times I could probably replay it start to finish in my head. For all of the folks who rush to ride it with every trip, well, they’re probably like me. They love it because riding pirates is like fifteen minutes of being submerged in a memory that you actually get to live again. Pirates opened in 1967, twelve years after Disneyland, and has been a must-do attraction ever since. In Walt’s spirit of constantly changing and innovating, there have been changes to the ride- the addition of Jack Sparrow’s uncanny animatronic and more recently the replacement of the “wench for a bride” auction scene —(“we wants the redhead!”)— for a steadfast lady pirate named Red with booty for auction. Okay no. She’s running the auction! It’s okay because the booty is the stolen goods kind, not the bottom kind! Anyway, what has made the ride so special has remained the same since its inception. Name another time you get to be a passerby in an old timey pirate village takeover. I’ll wait! The pirates are totally captivating. That a 50 year old animatronic pirate figure can be called captivating is really something. We have the technology today to replace these pirates with new ones that look so lifelike you would mistake them for a real person and yet if you watch the people around you when you’re riding you’ll see everyone looking back and forth with mouths agape because they don’t want to miss a bit of what these old animatronic pirates are doing. Really. They don’t want to miss what the fifty-four year old technology is doing! Also? It’s a little eerie and damp, the boats creak, and the smell… the pirate-water smell. Let me explain. McDonalds smells like French fries and Pirates of the Caribbean smells like pirate water. There are small shops who have built their entire brand around candles or room spray that smell like it. It contributes to the whole experience. The sights, the sounds, the song, and the smell. Do I love it? Yes. Is my front bathroom loosely themed after it? Absolutely.
Disney loves to embed history into their attractions. Some rides have entire backstories, others have little nods to things such as a hidden Mickey or a wink at the attraction that formerly occupied a space. Being that Treasure Island, a pirate movie, was Disney’s first live action film, and Pirates of the Caribbean was one of Walt’s original visions for the park, I wondered if there were any such nods to the film tucked away somewhere in the ride.
The answer is yes…in essence. Xavier Atencio, known to his peers as “X” was an animator at the Disney company from the 1930’s to the 1960’s when Walt personally asked him to become an Imagineer (the special Disney name for the people who dream up all of the magic at the parks) and lend his expertise to his vision for a pirate ride-through attraction. It was X who penned the tune “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me)” and created several scenes throughout the ride. Unsurprisingly, X looked for inspiration in the film Treasure Island. While there may not be specific film references in the ride, the influence is there in the pirate-y dialect evocative of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver, the treasure room where gold coins and glimmering jewels abound, and a talking parrot who greets you as your boat rounds the corner. For that matter, all of the pirate-esque elements, and therefore the very nature of the ride harkens back to Treasure Island.
I was really hoping for something more specific, so I turned to Disneyland expert Philander, who I religiously follow on Instagram for his Disneyland history and inside scoop. (Definitely follow him for Imagineering Mondays, they’re the greatest.)
He let me know that WED Enterprises (the company who used to oversee Disneyland) didn’t really plant references in the rides the way WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering) does these days, which was a bit of a disappointment considering the large pirate attraction project so closely followed the film that essentially created the image of a pirate we’ve all come to be so familiar with.
This got me thinking. What Treasure Island reference is worthy of the iconic ride? Remember Ben Gunn?
While it would be very easy to throw a peg-legged Long John Silver into the pillaging scene with enough spark to be noticed but not enough to make a fuss (the way WDI likes to hide it’s references), I have a different idea. If it were up to me, it’s high time for a Ben Gunn hangin’ around down there. I can totally see him peering over the skeletons in the Dead Man’s Cove scene or peeking around the corner in the jail scene, or, duh, guarding the treasure in the Captain’s Quarters, which is just what he did in the film!
Either way, I am open and available to join the WDI team when they’re ready for refurbishment. My credentials? I’ve seen Treasure Island once.