The Story of a Pirate and His Ship – and the Bigger Story Behind It

What would a pirate be without a ship?

For Captain Jack Sparrow, however, his ship, the Black Pearl, was more than just a ship.

“Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and sails; that’s what a ship needs. Not what a ship is. What the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.” -Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

But the idea of the Black Pearl started much earlier; it began as a dream in the mind of Walt Disney, a dream to bring the story of pirates to life “through simple stories that were tableaux-driven by strong, well-defined characters, and broad, visual humor the audience could easily read” (Jason Surrell)

Story is the essential organizing principle behind the design of all the Disney theme parks. Imagineers interpret and create narratives for Guest to experience in real space and time. – John Hench, Disney Legend and design genius for 60+ years.

To design an enhanced reality, the visual elements of storytelling must be intensified, creating a vibrant, larger-than-life environment. The enhanced simple reality that Guests experience in Disney parks and resorts is created in part by heightened key sensory details – and one of the richest immersive environments can be found in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.


Located in New Orleans Square, Pirates of the Caribbean was originally designed to be a walk-through attraction, much like a wax museum. However, the success of Disney’s involvement in the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65 introduced the concept of water-born boats and life-like Audio-Animatronics into the design elements for Pirates.

As one of the last projects that Walt Disney was personally involved in (it opened in 1967, about four months after his death), Pirates of the Caribbean had come a long way from his original vision. As Imagineer Jason Surrell notes in his book Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies:

The water-borne journey was a far cry from Walt’s original walk-through Rogues’ Gallery was museum. The sprawling adventure now starred sixty-four pirates with their assorted enemies and victims, and fifty-five animals. The show had outgrown the original space in the basement of the Blue Bayou Mart to encompass a 1,838 foot flume weaving through two enormous show buildings totaling 112,826 square feet and a channel containing 750,000 gallons of water. Disneyland guests had never before experienced anything of its scope, and it would set the standard for everything that would come thereafter.

While there is no one explanation for the immediate success and enduring appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean, the one common denominator would probably be the meticulous attention to detail exhibited by each Imagineer in every discipline. It is that quality that enables Guests to discover something different every time they board a bateau and sail into the darkness.

The minute details that produce the visual experience are really the true art of the Disney-themed show. Remember for Disney, everything the Guest sees, hears, smells, or comes into contact with is part of the show. The details corroborate every story point, immersing Guests in the story idea.

Most of the first generation of Disney’s Imagineers – like John Hench – began their career in film and understood the importance of details in visual storytelling, but with a crucial difference: theme park design is a three-dimensional storytelling art that places Guests in the story environment.

Most organizations are not going to even begin to approach the detailed design of Disney’s Imagineers in creating building design, travel paths, flooring, walkways, etc. But the principle of what the Imagineers do is sound, and can be applied in any organization.

Transform your spaces into story places.

Every element must work together to create an identity that supports the story of that place – structures, entrances and exits, walkways, and landscaping. Every element in its form and color must engage the Guests’ imagination and appeal to their emotions.

Does your “ship” tell a story? Is it telling the story you want told?

Previous post: Understanding the Three Types of People in Your Guest Experience

This post is the eighth in a series of twelve, making the powerful connection between Guest Experiences and all things Pirates. It may seem a little strange, but I guarantee you won’t see a pirate flag, hear the word “ahoy,” or encounter any like number of references to “pirates” without connecting them to Guest Experiences!

inspired by Walt Disney and his amazing ability to bring a story to life on the screen and in person

brought to life by the Pirate Navigator

Now booking “voyages” to churches like yours! Contact me for more information.

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