Attractions in Detail: Is Pirates of the Caribbean based on fact or fiction?

By Andrew Kiste

Every time I make a trip to Walt Disney World, the first park I always go to is the Magic Kingdom. Rather than follow the crowds and head to the right towards Tomorrowland, my family goes left into Adventureland and immediately onto one of my all-time favorite attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean.

Being something of a history nut, and having a degree in the subject, I was always fascinated with the attraction’s details that bring pirate legends to life. I was always curious, however, about the accuracy of what was being presented. Obviously pirate legends and stories, such as Peter Pan and Treasure Island had influenced what was being depicted, but how much of what guests experienced throughout the ride is accurate to history? After doing some research, I dug up a treasure trove of interesting facts that prove that the attraction is more historically accurate than you may think.

Imagineers want guests to be fully immersed into the story of an attraction, so they begin to set the scene from the very beginning, designing the exterior façade of the show building to fit the story. Guests enter the attraction by walking through a Spanish Caribbean fort called El Castillo del Morro (pictured above), which is actually based on a real Spanish fort, El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico. El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro was built in 1539, which coincided with the Golden Age of Piracy, which spanned the 1500s through 1700s. The attraction is supposed to be taking place during these years. While the building façade is not necessarily a spitting image of the real Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, there are many architectural details used in the building’s exterior that are accurate to the architecture used in forts and other important buildings in the Spanish Caribbean during the 1600s and 1700s.

For example, the exterior queue used during peak attendance is located in an open breezeway that was common in Spanish colonial architecture, known as the nave arcade. Nave arcades are large, open-air rooms lined with columns and used to make a room feel larger than it truly is. Another architectural feature that is accurate is the roofing of the show building. Red clay tile shingles cover the roof of the building, with large timber rafters beneath the tiles. In Spanish Caribbean architecture, red clay tile shingles were used on important and wealthy buildings to help reflect the heat, as well as allow the water to easily run off the roof during the daily rain showers. Timber rafters were used to allow for the movement of air beneath the roof and into the building. Finally, the large clock tower that stands guard outside the attraction was distinctly of colonial Dominican design. Towers similar to this rose to approximately twenty feet, were capped with a pyramidal prism, housing guards watching for invaders, who would ring a large bell to signal danger to townspeople.

Once guests enter the show building of the attraction, they find themselves winding their way through the corridors of El Castillo del Morro, which not only resemble the interior of a 17th century Spanish fort, but feel like it as well, complete with the cool humidity and musty smell of being in a building with stone walls 18 feet thick and hundreds of years old. Guests pass an armory, a dungeon and rooms where cannons point out of wells to the outside to ward off any unwanted visitors.

Upon exiting the fort, guests arrive in a small port town. Just prior to loading on the ride vehicles, guests pass a cave where a pirate is heard digging for treasure. Surprisingly, this has some basis in fact. While burying treasure in the sand wasn’t terribly common, it did happen on occasion. One pirate who was known for burying his treasure was Roberto Cofresí, a Puerto Rican, who, after giving a portion of his treasure to the needy of his village and spending a portion of his own share, buried the rest in caves for safe keeping until his return.

The ride vehicles are designed as bateaux, a French word literally meaning “boats.” The bateaux of the sixteen and seventeen hundreds however, had a distinct design, which surprisingly are accurately represented in the ride vehicles for the attraction. Bateaux of the colonial period were long, shallow boats measuring six feet in width, 40 to 65 feet in length, and three feet deep, which are the approximate measurements of the ride vehicles. The traditional bateau was pointed at both ends and was used to float cargo (in the attraction’s case, guests) down a river, carried by the current of the waters.

The bateaux full of guests wind through a series of caves, through a hurricane and down a waterfall in pitch darkness before drifting into the midst of a battle between a pirate ship, The Wicked Wench, commanded by Captain Barbossa of the film trilogy, and El Castillo del Morro. Voices are heard from the ship and fort, hurling insults at each other and commanding the fighters where and when to fire at the enemy. The Wicked Wench is classified as a frigate, which was traditionally built long and low to allow for more aerodynamic travel. Because it needed to be low to eliminate air hindrance, the frigate usually only had two decks: the top deck where the sails and cannons were located, and a bottom deck that was used for crew quarters, storage and the captain’s quarters. The frigate had two modes of travel, sail and oars; when the cannons weren’t in use and there was no breeze, the oars would be stuck out of the cannon wells and the crew would row the ship to its location until a breeze arose. While some minor changes have been made to fit The Wicked Wench into this scene, such as the use of forced perspective to create the illusion of size while still maintaining a smaller ship, the representation of the ship is pretty accurate to how a frigate actually looked.

After floating out of the battle scene, guests find a band of pirates torturing the mayor of the Spanish Caribbean town, looking for information regarding the location of the town’s treasury and Jack Sparrow. The mayor is dangling from a rope inside a well and when he refuses to talk, the leader of the band of pirates lowers the man into the well for a few seconds before giving him another chance to talk. While some pirate crews had rules against torturing prisoners, many crews did not. In fact, many accounts of pirate crews show the men acting with a lack of self-control and unfettered rage. Because pirating had been legal in the 14, 15, and early part of the 1600s, then known as privateering, many of these men had made their living in an honest way, working for national governments against enemy nations. However, when privateering was made illegal, these men became criminals. Some historians believe the rage and lack of self-control may be attributed to these men exacting revenge on colonial governments for taking away their means of living.

The architecture of the buildings in this scene is consistent with buildings in Spanish colonial architecture during the 17th and 18th centuries, as well. Doorways are lined by transverse masonry, which is a design where the blocks on the sides of the entry are arranged horizontally. Near the top of the doorway, the blocks are tilted in increasing degrees, forming an arch, until the tip of the arch, at which point the block is situated vertically, 90 degrees to the blocks on the side. Not only is this design aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but it also helps to evenly distribute the weight of the walls and roof of the building. The walls of the building are made of a stucco material, which was coated onto cement or rock blocks to help waterproof the building and keep the interior of the rooms cool. The roofs of the buildings in this scene are covered with red clay tiles. The recessed window from which the mayor’s wife encourages him is covered with wooden sash shutters, which was prevalent in colonial Dominican architecture. Also, a balcony stretches along the upper floor of the buildings in this scene, lined with metal banisters and railings, which was common in 17th and 18th century Puerto Rico. The rest of the attraction’s scenes feature similar architecture, keeping the design of the buildings accurate to Spanish Caribbean history.

The next thing guests see is a pirate auctioning off the women of the town to prospective buyers sitting across the river. The women are tied together by a rope, many of them distraught at the circumstances. One of the women, a buxom redhead, flaunts herself. When the auctioneer asks what the men are willing to pay for a bride, they yell back that they will give the auctioneer rum for the women.

Because pirate crews were so long at sea or on uninhabited islands, it was not unlikely for them to take advantage of the women they met on raids. Many of the unmarried women would be captured and tortured until submitting to the will of the crews. Pirates sometimes employed kindness to lower the guards of the women and then attack. While some crews forbade the “meddling of a prudish woman without her consent,” this was not the norm.

In the next scene, some townspeople get fed up with the pirate crew and decide it is time to fight back against the pillaging men. A pirate runs away from a woman wielding a broom, while other pirates try to discreetly get away with goods. One man is seen chasing after a chicken, while a trio of pirates are singing the attraction’s theme song, “Yo ho, yo ho a pirate’s life for me,” with an unsuspecting dog and donkey. Another pirate rests against a wall, offering to share his rum with a group of feral cats.

This scene contains an interesting concept that is often overlooked in pirate lore. Crews did not only sustain themselves on the wild animals and fruits of uninhabited islands or the food stolen during raids, many ships also carried livestock to produce milk and other food products. Chickens were kept to produce eggs and were eventually killed to produce meat for the crews. Cows and goats were kept to produce milk and meat as well. Dogs and cats were also kept on the ships to kill rats, which ate and destroyed food stores and usually carried lice and disease. These facts lead guests to realize that the pirates are trying to capture the livestock and domesticated animals of the town to bring back to their ship for different uses.

The deeper into the town the guests in their bateaux float, the worse conditions get for the town. The marauding pirates, having looted what they wanted, have set the town on fire. However, they are too drunk to realize the danger that they have put themselves in. This scene also carries historical significance. After looting a town during the 17th and 18th centuries. pirates tended to burn down the town to add insult to injury. It also created a distraction for the townspeople; rather than pursue the marauders, villagers were more concerned about putting out the fire to save whatever hadn’t been stolen. It was also very easy for a town to burn down in the 1600s and 1700s. While homes of the wealthy and important governmental buildings were made of stucco and roofed with red clay tile shingles, the homes of commoners were made of wooden planks with thatched roofs. As a result, if one building caught fire, it was very easy for another to catch fire as well, ignited by a stray spark or floating piece of hot ash. The buildings made of stone or stucco also had a tendency to get extremely hot inside because the bricks and red clay tile shingles held in the heat of the fire, eventually increasing the temperature of the fire. It didn’t take long for an entire town to burn to the ground.

Many records indicate that pirates spent a good portion of their time inebriated by drink. However, this is for a reason that many people don’t realize. In a hot, humid climate, especially in a time period without water purification systems and refrigerators, as well as for people who were constantly traveling or at sea for many days or weeks at a time, water had a tendency to go bad and be infested with bacteria. As a result, water supplies were mixed with rum and beer to kill the bacteria and preserve the water, as well as to add flavor. Because the climate in the Caribbean is hot and humid, pirates had a tendency to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. As a result, they were constantly getting some form of alcoholic-water mixture, raising their blood alcohol content to high levels, causing them to be intoxicated often. As a result, their ability to maintain self-control was eliminated and a carefree attitude was established. Pirates risked their lives to plunder a town, and spent or wasted anything as soon as they acquired it. This explains why the pirates in this scene are singing with their arms around each other or sleeping in a pile of pigs while the city burns to the ground around them.

After passing beneath the hairy leg of the pirate sitting on a bridge and floating through a dungeon full of pirates trying to convince the guard dog to bring them the keys, guests find themselves in the town’s treasury. Jack Sparrow sits on a chair in the middle of the treasury, singing the attraction’s theme song and talking to himself while he flaunts various pieces of treasure he has found. It was not uncommon for towns to have a central treasury where the local government kept its wealth. Because the town through which the bateaux floated was owned by Spain, the wealth in the vault is owned by the Spanish government. Precious jewels glisten on shelves in the treasury, Sparrow is decked out in jewelry, and gold coins are scattered throughout the room. Treasure and wealth during the Golden Age of Piracy was not only gold and jewels, but also included textiles, cocoa, coffee and slaves. However, because Imagineers wanted the attraction to have a legendary and not academic feel, they showed Jack Sparrow enjoying himself amongst priceless gems, necklaces, and coinage.

The vocabulary used by the pirates throughout the attraction is also realistic. Because the Caribbean islands were a collection of colonies owned by different European nations, these men were regularly exposed to many different languages, including Dutch, Spanish, French and English, as well as numerous African languages spoken by the slaves of the colonies. As a result, they picked up numerous words and phrases used in the different languages. Similar to other occupations, pirates made language their own, coming up with different phrases for objects and activities. For example, when Barbossa calls his crew “bilge rats” in the battle scene, he is using the name as an insult; a bilge rat was a person who was required to work the bilge pumps in the bowels of a ship as a punishment. When he calls his crew “scurvy scum,” it is possible that he is referring to the fact that his crew may have scurvy, a disease caused by a Vitamin C deficiency due to the lack of consumption of fruits and vegetables containing the vitamin. The disease was common in ship crews during the 17th and 18th centuries and caused spotting of the skin, bleeding, lethargy and eventually death. Many of the other terms and phrases used throughout the attraction were real phrases used by pirate and other sailing crews as well.

Walt Disney was a master storyteller, whether it was in animation, live-action films or theme park attractions. His philosophy toward creating a great story has been passed down through the company, to present day script writers, animators, Imagineers and theme park cast members. When a guest enters a Disney theme park, they are bombarded with sights, sounds, and even smells that help weave the intricate story that the Imagineers want them to believe. This is no different in one of the classic Disney attractions that have been around for almost 50 years at Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean. Before even getting on the ride vehicle, guests are immersed in the story by the architecture of the show building, the dankness of the fort’s interior, the design of the ride vehicles, the language used by the pirates, the details of the scenes and even the salty smell of the air within the attraction. While this attraction was inspired by the pirate lore created by J.M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, including the films Disney created during the 1950s and 1960s based on novels by the authors, many of the details throughout the attraction are historically accurate, allowing guests to learn something interesting during their vacation at Walt Disney World.

Andrew Kiste is a life-long Disney fan and contributer to “Orlando Attractions Magazine”. He is currently residing in Greensboro, N.C. with his wife, where he is a high school social studies teacher.


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  1. Are you sure Castillo del Morro is in Puerto Rico?I live all my life in Cuba that is what I’ coming from and at the enter of the Bahia is Castillo del Morro,the people allways say the are the original of everything like they say there flag was first and we copy that and that is wrong ours was the first

    1. Indeed, there is a Castillo del Morro in Cuba but Blaine Gibson an artist and Imagineer in 1964 traveled to old San Juan in Puerto Rico and was inspired not only by the San Felipe del Morro fort but buy the whole town. He used the whole layout of old San Juan for the actual ride.

      In 1964 Cuba was starting to reorganize its government under Fidel Castro. Anti- American sentiment was at an all-time high and the Disney crew never got a chance to actually travel there.

  2. Walt Disney released Treasure Island in 1950 in color. It was the first Disney non-animated film. At the time, it was billed as the greatest adventure story of all time. Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver, invented the pirate slang, “Arrh!.” Emboldened in part by the success of Treasure Island, Disney conceived the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and later the movie Series. The question posed was if Pirates of the Caribbean is based on fact. If you understand the linkage between Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean the answer is “yes.” Treasure Island was based on a real treasure buried in 1750, not by Captain Flint, but by a merchant captain from Flintshire, Wales. Recently discovered documents detail this amazing true story which is prequel to Stevenson’s classic. Treasure Island: The Untold Story lays it bare.