The Key to Jack Sparrow

Among theme park attractions, there are a few special experiences that elevate themselves above the rest into the realm of artistic masterpiece. Pirates, Mansion, Small World, Gadget’s Go-Coaster… These modern classics are considered to be the very highest class of attraction. And if art has taught us anything, it’s that a classic work can always be made better by tinkering with it years later.

Way better than the original.

A number of years ago, Disney decided that one great way to improve their Pirate classic would be to add several zany animatronics of your favorite zany character from your favorite zany Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

Oh, who are we kidding? Goose is your favorite zany Bruckheimer character.

I’ve mellowed on the decision over the years. I guess there’s no harm in referencing a beloved film franchise, especially with sequels that most people would rank in the same class as the Matrix sequels. Top company indeed.

I do have a bit of a beef with the new storyline. Not really because of Jack Sparrow, but because it alters the “real time” aspect of the ride. Aside from the obvious time travel of the waterfall, from haunted caverns into live pirate action, the ride used to unfold linearly, as you watched. There was no indication that anything happened off screen, in between the Auction scene and the burning village. You simply left one area of town and came to another, as if you were really there (which you were).

But now there’s a series of implied cuts in the story. You see Jack at the dunking of the mayor, and then a few minutes later, Jack is in a barrel, trying to swipe a key to the treasure vault. And then a few minutes later, Jack is in the vault, celebrating. You’ve missed some scenes there. How did Jack get in the barrel? How did he swipe the key? Now the ride is more like a movie, than a story that unfolds before your eyes. They are leaving bits out.

This scene used to feature kidnapped guards, pirate gun battles, and barrels of explosive gun powder. Now it has the star of 21 Jump Street singing to a parrot.

It’s a very subtle thing, but maybe has an effect on people. It’s become Jack’s story. He’s the focus, and we’re not privy to everything he’s doing. Before, it was always your story. You were the center of attention, floating down the canal in the literal middle of the action.

But back to that treasure key… There’s a nice exchange in David Mamet’s book On Directing Film (Mamet is one of the favorite filmmakers in the parkeology offices. We once spent three days analyzing The Spanish Prisoner and concluded the whole thing was a big joke). In the book, Mamet and one of his students are discussing how to prepare a notebook prop for a shot in a movie:

Mamet: How does the book look?
Student: Prepared.
Mamet: No, you can’t make the book look prepared. You can make it look neat. That might be nice, but that’s not the most important thing for your answer to the prop person. To make it prepared, to make it neat, to make it convincing, the audience ain’t gonna notice. What are they going to notice?
Student: That it’s the same book they’ve seen already.
Mamet: Exactly so! You’ve got to be able to recognize it. That’s the most important thing about it. The book in general is not important. What’s important is what it does in the scene.

That key, shown above in the open vault door, is the same one held by the pirate whom Jack was spying on from the barrel. The most important design aspect of the key is not that it is a “fitting key for a treasure vault.” That’s of some importance, but by far the most important aspect of the design is that it must be recognizable. You must be able to identify it as the same key held by the barrel pirate.

This prop certainly fits the bill. There’s absolutely a reason for the oversized handle, the little golden tassel. Those aren’t just design whims. They are to catch your eye, so that you can fill in the story details yourself. Jack stole the key from the pirate at the barrel. It’s good, efficient execution of the new storyline.

But I still liked the old one better.

Now if we can just get Mamet to do a rewrite of Stitch’s Great Escape.

Comments (6)

  1. FoxxFur, you know you are always welcome here! But to clarify, I did not mean time travel in any sort of intentional plot element. Only that the caves play as being completely out of time with what happens post-waterfall. Spooky, long-dead pirate story, followed by here-and-now pirate story.

    I think it plays that way regardless of the designers’ intentions. It has never bothered me that the ride has this structure. I think starting with the skeletons kind of makes sense. The skeletons feel like present day to us (all the pirates are long gone). It eases us into the world. Then we’re down the waterfall and actually INSIDE a real live pirate story.

    It’s a bit discombobulated with what happens in the queue, but I can live with it. After all the queue has BOTH elements: Skeletons playing chess, and real pirates digging for treasure or dropping anchor on Moonlight Bay. I don’t think these things always have to make perfect logical sense. They’re really more about mood and evoking feelings, than having airtight story constructions.

    I do agree that that the Florida pirates never had a real ending. I guess maybe Jack brings some of that with him, since now we see the culmination of his efforts. But a case can be made for the old ending as well. The fate of pirates and all that. We saw them dead when we started, transitioned to seeing them in control of the world, then ended with them shooting each other for treasure, or trapped in a burning jail. From that sense, the story comes full circle.

    And as far as gatekeepers go, the talking skull did a nice job, but unfortunately in the Florida version was used more for safety warnings than for prologue.

  2. Hey Shane;

    Sorry to barge in on your blog, but I must protest that there is no time travel scenario at the WDW version; that’s a myth brought about by imposing the DL’s structure on the FL ride. The FL attraction happen(ed) all in one continuous time/space chunk.

    You approach the fort. Cannons are firing. You enter the fort and hear the Spanish soldiers preparing for battle (and still do, although it is muffled). You get in a boat and see a menacing ship out on the water. You go through a cave and exit on the other side of the bay and the ship has now arrived and is attacking the fort you just left.

    WED even put the Bombardment Bay dialogue on the fort side in the queue audio to make this clear. It isn’t, but their intents were.

    Funny thing is, I actually think the Jack Sparrow stuff did the FL version a lot of favors even if the writing was not exactly up to snuff. It gave the attraction a more mellow opening and a “gatekeeper” offering a warning, something it never had prior to Davy Jones’ appearance. It also rounded out the ending. What the FL ride always lacked was a start and a finish, and I don’t say this because it’s literally missing the beginning and ending scenes of the original. We drop into developing action already underway and leave as the pirates are looting the treasury. There’s not really much resolution of their fate: they found the gold and have “won”. What was the deal with the skeletons??

    By rounding out the body of the show and making it feel like it has a resolution, a lot of my objections to the ride are gone. These additions do nothing to hep at Disneyland but in Walt Disney World they make a half-formed attraction feel whole again.

    Anyway I’ve written about all this ad nausuem:

    but you probably know that. And yes, I’ve always been very amused by the MASSIVE PLOT POINT KEY!

  3. @Brer, it definitely starts to poke holes in the logic. Also, in my dyslexic haze, I somehow read your last statement as if Paris was going to be adding a sad monkey figure… which I thought sounded bizarrely entertaining.

  4. Wow! What an astute observation.

    The changes have always bothered me, and like Shane, I’ve thought to myself that it wouldn’t have bothered me if Jack had appeared in single scene, but now the entire focus feels like it is on him. For me the most jarring scenes are those with the dialogue about Jack:

    1) The ship battle scene with Barbossa demanding Sparrow makes it seem like the city is protecting Jack–why would the citizens do that?

    2) The dunking scene again makes it seem that the citizens are protecting him. I think you could have STILL had Jack there, but kept the old dialogue–it actually would have made more sense as he would be spying on the scene to learn the location of the treasure.

    I think if they would have kept the Jack appearances to the dunking area (with the old dialogue) and the treasure room at the end that the whole ride would flow better.

    I’m a sad monkey that Disneyland Paris is rumored to be adding Jack in now 🙁

  5. It’s a minor thing, but it does change the ride in a very subtle way. Jack becomes the only recurring character, and it alters the focus. If they wanted to add him, a single cameo would have been a good choice.

  6. Very good point about the attraction becoming a bunch of jump cuts. Had never really thought of it that way before.

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