Pirates No More: Disney CEO Bob Iger Announces End of Iconic Attractions, Unveils New Direction

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Bob Iger, while behind him is Pirate Jack Sparrow, lounging on an ornate throne with a goblet in hand. The background is dark with blue and purple lighting.

Credit: Inside the Magic

It appears that Bob Iger is looking to immediately do away with classic attraction concepts at Disney parks, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion.

Auction scene featuring Pirate Redd, the auctioneer, and townspeople in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World Resort
Credit: Ed Aguila, Inside the Magic

When Walt Disney created Disneyland, while he already had some iconic movies and characters created, he did not build the theme park on them. Walt came up with the idea while sitting on his bench each week at Griffith Park, watching his daughters go on the carousel, and thinking that there should be a place where families can enjoy the feelings he felt all day long.

Walt and his Imagineers cleverly crafted new and ground-breaking attractions that would blow the minds of guests, and best of all, many of these rides told a new story, developed from The Walt Disney Company.

Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, for example, is one of the most iconic and beloved rides in the history of theme parks.

It officially opened on March 18, 1967, in New Orleans Square at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The ride was among the last projects personally overseen by Walt Disney, who passed away three months before its opening.

The initial concept for Pirates of the Caribbean was a wax museum and walk-through attraction featuring static scenes of pirates. However, after the success of the audio-animatronics technology in the Enchanted Tiki Room and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the concept evolved into a boat ride with animatronic characters.

A vintage photo of a construction site with a sign advertising the Pirates ride.
Credit: Disney Parks Blog

Marc Davis, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” was the principal designer for the ride’s characters and scenes. He was responsible for many of the humorous and memorable pirate vignettes throughout the attraction. Xavier “X” Atencio wrote the script for the ride and the lyrics for the attraction’s theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” His contributions helped to create the engaging narrative and memorable music that define the experience.

Claude Coats, another of Disney’s original Imagineers, was responsible for the ride’s environmental design, creating the dark and atmospheric sets that transport guests into the world of pirates. Blaine Gibson sculpted many of the animatronic figures, bringing the characters to life with his detailed and expressive designs.

Pirate skeleton scene from Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean attraction
Credit: Disney

The ride begins with a tranquil boat journey through the Blue Bayou, a Louisiana bayou scene complete with fireflies and a quaint plantation house. Guests then enter a dark tunnel, where they encounter eerie pirate skulls and crossbones warning them of the perils ahead. The boats then plunge down two waterfalls, symbolizing a journey back in time to the days of pirates.

Throughout the ride, guests witness various scenes of pirate life, including a pirate raid on a coastal town, a treasure hunt, and a prison escape. The ride combines whimsical humor with moments of adventure and danger, featuring over 120 animatronic characters, including pirates, villagers, and animals.

While the ride was then adapted into the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise starring Johnny Depp, it started as an original tale, not based at all on existing IP.

The attraction has been replicated at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Shanghai Disneyland, each with unique variations.

Other rides like The Haunted Mansion, Carousel of Progress, “it’s a small world”, Big Thunder Mountain, Spaceship Earth, Expedition Everest, and so on, were all created based on an original story developed by Disney and Imagineers, bringing new characters to life without them having been introduced on screen first.

Now, that way of creating attractions will be forever extinct.

Bob Iger speaking at a podium against a blue-lit backdrop.
Credit: Disney

In a recent Q&A session at the MoffettNathanson Media, Internet & Communications Conference, Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, shed light on the company’s current trajectory and future plans. The discussion covered a wide range of topics, offering valuable insights into Disney’s approach to streaming, traditional media, theme parks, and its overall strategic direction.

Regarding streaming, Iger acknowledged the initial hurdles Disney+ faced.

The early days were marked by an overproduction of content, leading to significant financial losses. He emphasized a shift towards prioritizing high-quality content creation and leveraging the power of AI for personalized recommendations. While acknowledging the continued importance of traditional media for consumer engagement, Iger doesn’t see it as the primary driver of growth. Instead, the focus will be on utilizing technological advancements to enhance the traditional media experience.

Disney’s theme park division emerged as another key area of focus.

Iger highlighted the remarkable financial success of the parks, underlining their critical role in the company’s overall profitability. He pointed to record attendance and revenue across most parks, with Disney World being the sole exception, though still performing strongly. The discussion expanded to international ventures, with Iger detailing the success of Shanghai Disneyland in solidifying the Disney brand in China.

He also mentioned the upcoming transformation of Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (Disney Adventure World) and the growing importance investors place on the performance of Disney’s theme park division, particularly considering recent fluctuations within the entertainment industry.

However, the most intriguing aspect of the theme park discussion centered on Disney’s evolving strategy regarding intellectual property (IP) integration.

Bob Iger standing by an archway with a view of a fairytale castle in the background.
Credit: Inside the Magic

Iger attributed a substantial portion of the park’s success to the strategic use of established IPs. Examples like the Zootopia expansion in Shanghai Disneyland and the planned inclusion of Avatar in Disneyland’s Forward expansion project served as illustrations. Looking towards the future, Iger announced an ambitious plan to “turbocharge” the parks.

This strategy prioritizes the rapid integration of new intellectual properties, drawing inspiration from the success of Cars Land and Toy Story Land. This shift suggests a near-exclusive focus on attractions and lands directly tied to existing Disney IPs, allowing the company to capitalize on established popularity while maintaining flexibility to adapt to evolving audience preferences by potentially pivoting to even newer IPs in the future.

“For quite a long time, new attractions and lands at the parks were based on, essentially, either very old IP or no IP — just an attraction. And, starting really with Carsland and Toy Story and a few others. We decided that almost all of our investment in the parks in terms of attractions and lands would be using that IP. And it’s very very clear what that delivered.”

From this, and based on all of the latest expansions at Disney such as World of Frozen/Kingdom of Arendelle, we can see that every new thing that Disney brings to life is from a story that they already have in their arsenal. It appears that as long as Disney CEO Bob Iger is in charge, and he will be until 2026, the parks will only create IP-based attractions.

elsa and anna at world of frozen hong kong Disneyland
Credit: Disney Parks Blog

This meant that with the $60 billion that we know is coming to the Disney parks and experiences sector, anything new that is developed will not have an entirely original story.

What do you think of Iger sticking to IP-based attractions moving forward? 

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