SINCE 1967, the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim has immersed visitors in the world of swashbuckling buccaneers. After boarding small boats in a landing lit by the glow of fireflies, riders float past Dead Man’s Cove, where the skeletons of unlucky marauders sit guarding their booty even in death. They watch as cannonballs whistle through the air and behold as rambunctious pirates loot villages and set things aflame.
After next month, one 50-year-old scene will be updated to reflect more sensitive times. Disney will temporarily close the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to tweak the “Wench Auction” scene, where a full-busted animatronic woman with flame-red hair, a red corset and a lacy petticoat stands on an auction block to be sold. “We wants the redhead,” riders can hear the pirates shout as they glide by. Behind her stand other wenches, their eyes downcast and pleading, their waists tied to one another with a leather strap. Standing guard over them is a rotund pirate with a lewd grin and a pistol tucked in his waistband.
When unveiled later this year, the new scene will depict the same redheaded woman, but this time as a pirate herself. She will oversee the local townspeople as they begrudgingly surrender their chickens, goats, grandfather clocks and other valuables. Where before hung a sign that read “Auction, Take a Wench for a Bride” will now hang a banner that says “Auction, Surrender yer Loot”.
This is not the first time Disney has revamped the ride to avoid offence. In 1997 the company altered a scene that showed lusty pirates chasing after frightened women. To lighten the mood, Disney gave the women trays of food and rum to create the perception that all the men were after was some grub and a tipple. In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times that year one reader wrote: “I am distressed to hear that Disneyland is planning to change the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction to show the pirates lusting after food and drink rather than the damsels that have been the objects of their amours for the past 30 years. How politically incorrect! Can Disneyland officials be so insensitive to life in the US not to realise that obesity is a problem to over half the population over age 30?”
The reactions to Disney’s choice, both in 1997 and today, reflect a larger debate sweeping America over the best balance between historical accuracy and political correctness. Supporters of the changes to Pirates of the Caribbean reason that Disneyland is oriented towards children and therefore rides should be as sanitised as possible without entirely losing their flavour. Detractors believe Disney’s pirates should depict pirates as they actually behaved. Even the “happiest place on Earth” is not immune from such scuffles.