A short time before he died, Walt Disney was given a dress rehearsal of the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean ride, moving at the desired ride speed through the sets. The designers were apologetic for the way that conversations bled from one scene to the next, resulting in some moments of babble during the transition. Walt famously replied that it was all right; passengers would treat it like a cocktail party, listening first to one conversation and then transitioning to paying attention to another without thinking too much about it. He also opined that the layers of missed details would excite repeat visitors, who could discover something new every time they rode. Today, let’s examine how much this “cocktail party” theory holds up in Disney attractions of the modern era.

I’d read about Walt’s cocktail party theory at a fairly young age, and so it has colored my view of Pirates of the Caribbean my entire adult life. I accepted it wholesale, the way one eagerly devours Waltisms when one is a rampant theme park fan–unreflectedly and uncritically. If Walt said it, it was not only true, it was somehow prescient and wise. (This is the sort of thinking that gets people accepting that any company quote must have been Walt’s, such as the Marty Sklar quote “If we (you) can dream it, then we (you) can do it”–even the Disney company itself makes this mistake, mis-attributing that quote to Walt on recent paper plates at Disney World).


Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is arguably Walt’s last ride, or at least the last one he had significant input on (he knew of plans for Haunted Mansion, but they were still unformed at his death and led to the first of many fights in the years to come about what kind of tone/direction Walt would have ultimately chosen). Since Pirates was his apparent masterpiece, it always earned a top spot in my heart. This was surely the culmination of all he had learned, all of the showmanship on display to a cutting-edge level. If Pirates had overlapping audio and thus “too much to absorb” on a single viewing, I associated this with excellent theme park design.

Gnawing at the corners of my consciousness is an alternative theory. Walt’s comments about rides with “too much to absorb” at once came at a time not long before he succumbed to cancer. We know that he knew he had cancer–he’d told Marc Davis of it at one point–so presumably he knew his time was limited. Part of me wonders if Walt was actually just being generous when he didn’t pounce on the Pirates designers, that he had finally grown a few soft edges in his old age. That doesn’t seem much like the “papa bear” Walt with one eyebrow raised that employees knew for decades, but this is also the time in his life when he rhapsodized on camera about the “staff finally admitting I knew what I was doing” and “life after Disney.” These are the statements typically made by a man thinking about his legacy, and that kind of thinking may indeed have led Walt to go easy on the Pirates creators.

As the years have gone by, more Imagineers have published books about theme parks and what makes them work. Marty Sklar wrote about telling only one story at a time, which provides clarity over confusion and doesn’t send mixed signals to the audience. Arguably, the addition of Captain Jack Sparrow had led to the type of violation Sklar warned against. You’ve got the initial storyline of the ride (anonymous pirates sack a city and burn it), and you’ve got the Sparrow overlay (this one scallywag infiltrates and gets the treasure for himself).

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Too much visual competition creates the problem. Should we be looking at the pirates auctioning the city citizens, or Jack Sparrow’s infiltration? We do need to acknowledge that this ride, perhaps more than most, has always had a lot to look at. There are details, even clutter, everywhere you look. It’s definitely more than you can see on one ride-through. Is this part of Walt’s cocktail party theory?

To my mind, no. The cocktail party thesis works when we’re dealing with auditory comments that overlap. Visual details that demand equal attention don’t work the same way; they are distracting. But visual details that subordinate to the main “story” (or at least the main visual) do not represent clutter so much as authentic details. The auction scene in pirates, for example, is meant to draw your eye to the auctioneer first, the redhead second, and the auctioned woman third. You might take in the leering men across the river at a quick glance–or, if this is your 547th ride through, you might be concentrating on them to start with. But are you concentrating on the crates and baskets at the auction? Besides the chickens (which move minimally and thus attract attention to themselves), can you even name what else is in those baskets without cheating by looking it up? This kind of layering gives realism, but not competition visually.

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Look again at what Walt said: visitors would listen to the first conversation, then tune it out in favor of the new one. Walt knew, decades ago, what today’s youth still doesn’t seem to understand: there is no such thing as multitasking. What we euphemistically call multitasking is actually something more like “task-switching,” and today’s cognitive psychologists have proven again and again via experimentation that attention cannot actually be split or shared. Worse, when you try to task-switch, you perform worse than if you’d simply paid focused attention on one thing at a time. It’s why you shouldn’t have the television running when trying to study for an exam, for instance.

At this point I’d like to focus the discussion specifically on Florida’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean, mainly on the first scene (or the second scene, if you count the waterfalls and mist-waterfalls as a scene unto itself). Known as Dead Man’s Cove collectively, this area before the drop has always had a story to tell. The blogger FoxxFur tells it succinctly:

We see the skeletons of pirates and hear the repeated warning “dead men tell no tales”. In Disneyland, “dead men tell no tales” doubles as a warning: “the answers you’re looking for aren’t here”. In Florida, it simply and only refers to the actual Dead Man’s Cove scene, because the other scenes from the haunted caverns – the inn, the bedroom, the treasure horde – don’t appear. In Florida, it’s as much of an explanation as it is a warning: these pirates were killed to protect the location of the treasure buried here.

This represents a clear interpretation of Dead Man’s Cove as it existed for many years. Although FoxxFur’s post is recent, it doesn’t address the presence of the movie mermaids in the Orlando ride in this section, added a few years ago: we hear the mermaid song now rather than “dead men tell no tales” on repeat, we see bubbles and a projection in the water (when it works), and we see a mermaid skeleton in a boat on the beach.

To my mind, this is the kind of visual intrusion that exceeds “detail for realism’s sake” and drifts over to competition for our attention. Arguably, most visitors now notice the mermaid details but don’t pay much mind to the pirate corpses, even though they have an important story to tell. The ride now tells two separate stories here, one of which doesn’t really gel into a story anyway (just why is there a mermaid on that beached boat?!)

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But this kind of discussion is not relevant only at Dead Man’s Cove. Examining how attention is supposed to be focused, scattered, diffused, or otherwise diverted is a worthwhile thing to do across Disney properties. Some Disney attractions get the “focused attention” part right, but others don’t. One of the chief selling points of an Omnimover attraction like Haunted Mansion is precisely to focus the viewer’s attention on just one thing (versus the “look anywhere” dynamic created by Pirates of the Caribbean, which therefore requires more careful theatrical staging to make the viewer look in just the right spot).

I get the impression sometimes that the point is not to focus attention so much as overwhelm it. Consider the “Under the Sea” dance room in the Little Mermaid attraction on both coasts. On the one hand, this is an Omnimover that normally serves to focus attention. But on the other hand, this room is buzzing with activity, colors, lights, and movement, all vying desperately for your attention. That’s not to say that overwhelming is a bad thing; arguably, the song in the animated movie did exactly the same thing, so this could be seen as a proper translation into three dimensions.

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Another interesting conundrum is It’s a Small World. Like Pirates, it uses flat-bottomed boats and wide open vistas, so you could in theory look anywhere. But unlike Pirates, which generally uses staging, lights, and audio to focus your attention on one main point, in Small World there are lots of “little” things to gape at, none more prominent than the other. There’s lots of movement, but they are small in nature, and sometimes even synchronized with each other in the same room. The overall effect is one of attention-splitting that works, incongruously, in harmony. Everything vies for your attention, but in a gentle way, and in a way that does not overwhelm its neighbor. Which, if you think about the message of the song and thus the ride, is perfectly chosen.

Probably most rides at Disney get the balance right, with lots of supporting details but a clear focal point in each scene. I think Frozen Ever After at Epcot is a good example of that, as is Dinosaur at DAK (by the way, its recent refurbishment is a smashing success! Improved lighting everywhere, and gone are the embarrassing non-functional jumping compsognathus, replaced by crisp videos of the same tiny dinos).

At the same time, the “too much to look at” problem does creep into several DAK attractions, especially the queues for Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids. Here we can ascribe the tonality of those attractions to one designer – Joe Rohde – and his desire for ultra-realism (at least compared to other, more idealized Disney depictions of real places). Having “too much to look at” is a good problem to have at Pirates, because there is a clear focal point visually, and the cocktail party concept applies only to the auditory. At the queues to Everest and Kali, that’s much less true. There are no visual focal points, and very little in the way of audio. The cocktail party here is a visual hodgepodge, not an auditory one, which makes for a completely different experience. Attention cannot be divided; it can only be fought for, shifted, and overwhelmed.

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The modern Pirates of the Caribbean ride, despite being the ancestral home of the cocktail party concept and “too much to process at once,” ironically is now the standard-bearer for splitting attention in a way that DOESN’T make sense, where focused attention doesn’t just glide effortlessly from one big draw to the next big draw in the ensuing scene, but in fact competes for (visual) dominance in the same scene. If it were an audio-only phenomenon, we’d call it a cacophony. Here we’ll have to settle for calling it a visual cacophony, the sort of bedlam and mayhem we witness with our eyes that make it hard to know what to look at, or what the main storyline is.

Your turn! Where do you think focused attention is rightly staged, and where is it lacking? Does the modern Pirates attraction try to tell two incongruous stories at the same time, or does it all work together for you? What about Haunted Mansion, Small World, or other attractions with competing elements?