Creating Pirates of the Caribbean at WED – Throwback Thursday

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Lee Toombs applying detail to a Pirates of the Caribbean figure’s face.

It’s hard to imagine in a way, but Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is now 48 years old. In today’s world of high-tech attractions and digital wizardry creating media-based effects and ride experiences, Pirates of the Caribbean stands out as one of the greatest ever created. In my own opinion, Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean remains the single greatest attraction ever designed and built, hands down. The fact that Pirates stands up to all other rides and attractions nearly five decades later, is a testament to the vision of Walt Disney and his talented team of designers that he assembled at WED in Glendale, California, to take on this huge project.

Even as a child, I had an affinity for Pirates of the Caribbean. Woe be my family if we arrived at Disneyland to find Pirates listed on the “Attractions Not Operating” board at the ticket booths! In later years, my love of Pirates would grow by leaps and bounds, as that was my first attraction to work on when I became a Disneyland Cast Member in 1988. When you’re brought into the theme park fold at Disney, you’re warned that becoming an employee will likely ruin the “magic”, since you’re about to learn the gritty ins and outs of the operation. Pirates training then was a two day process. Not only did I have to learn the ride system competently, I had to become familiar with the labyrinthine footprint of Pirates itself, which is comprised of two very large multi-level show buildings. It’s very easy to get completely turned around and lost wandering through the Pirates show buildings – so it is essential that Cast Members assigned to working it be very familiar with all aspects of it.

The more I learned, the more I was awestruck by the sheer magnitude of imagination and creative firepower that went into making Pirates of the Caribbean. My appetite for knowledge became insatiable, and as a Cast Member, I spent a huge amount of 1988 and 1989 delving into the history and lore of the park, and its creators. It was harder then – there was no Google; nor were there countless Disney fan sites to check out, or old YouTube videos to watch. Most of the knowledge regarding Pirates of the Caribbean was handed down by older Cast Members and by simply talking to the Imagineers that were responsible for creating it, as well as those assigned to keeping it fresh and exciting for new generations of Disneyland guests.

TPA-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-BookMy love of Pirates of the Caribbean culminated in the mid-’90s in a 170-page Feature Issue book that Theme Park Adventure produced on the history of the attraction. It was, and remains the largest single document regarding the Pirates attractions at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. The book has been out of print for nearly 20 years now, although it’s not terribly uncommon to find a copy floating around here and there, especially in the collections of serious Disney aficionados.

In an unprecedented partnership (and one that would never happen today), Theme Park Adventure worked with Marty Sklar and the team at Walt Disney Imagineering to unearth hundreds of images of the attraction – many of which had never seen the light of day – for use in our Feature Issue. That is how we came to have copies of the images we’re sharing with you in today’s Throwback Thursday story. We’ve put our watermark on them, so that there’s no mistaking where they’re from online. Each of today’s images do however, belong completely to The Walt Disney Company, and have simply been pulled from our archives that were created all those years ago when we were putting our book together, with the blessing of Marty and the team at WDI.

Two amazing women are featured in today’s story; Leota Toombs Thomas, and Alice Davis.

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Lee Toombs bringing a scoundrel to life at WED for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Sadly, I never had the fortune of meeting Lee. Many of my friends and colleagues that did know her and work with her have described her as an incredible person, full of life and laughter – with a wicked sense of humor as sharp as her artistic eye for detail. It was that eye for detail that got her noticed by Walt and the rest of the team, landing her as a designer on projects including It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Lee was a figure finisher – putting the immaculate detailing on the audio-animatronics created by WED and essentially, making them look completely real. She was a master of her craft and loved by everyone at Disney. Lee is Madame Leota in The Haunted Mansion, her image immortalized in the floating crystal ball in the attraction’s Seance Circle. The finishing touches that Lee put on the figures in these world-class attractions were astonishing – and I absolutely feel that Disney’s animatronic figures never looked as good as they did when they were under the care of Lee and those early Imagineers that not only specialized in animatronics – they created them. When I often say they don’t make ’em that way anymore, I mean it – the level of detail and artistry (use of real makeup to constantly touch-up the Pirates figures on a regular basis, for example) shown by legends such as Lee in their on-going work – we as an industry simply don’t go to those lengths anymore. And that’s a shame. Lee passed away in 1991, but her spirit and touch lives on forever in the most incredible attractions the world has ever seen.

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Alice Davis oversees the production of the Auctioneer’s costume for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Alice Davis, a Disney Legend in her own right, was married to the late Marc Davis, who was considered by many to be one of the greatest Imagineers that ever lived. In a unique partnership, Marc would create characters for Walt Disney’s most iconic attractions, and in many cases, Alice was in charge of creating costumes for them and overseeing the team of seamstresses and designers that would dress all of these audio-animatronics. Such was the case with Pirates of the Caribbean. My personal favorite of Alice’s costume designs is the Auctioneer, perhaps the most well-known character from Pirates of the Caribbean. From his large leather boots to his feathered pirate hat, the Auctioneer looms larger than life as he calls out to fellow buccaneers and guests as they pass below on their boats. Alice Davis’ design work has been seen in numerous iconic Disney attractions, including It’s a Small World, Carousel of Progress, and of course, Pirates. At 85, Alice is still as feisty as she ever has been, and I am extremely honored to know her and call her friend. She and Marc played a major role in the book I wrote in the ’90s, and I am forever grateful for them and their involvement in what I still consider TPA’s single greatest project in the last 20 years.

There are so many photos and stories to share from Pirates of the Caribbean, and likewise, countless stories about both Lee and Alice that could go on for days! However, our Throwback Thursday stories are meant to be short and sweet, leaving fans wanting more, but giving a few gems each time to savor and enjoy! Needless to say, both Alice Davis and Lee Toombs embodied the pirate spirit themselves – bold, adventurous, outspoken and strong, these women represented the best of the best at Disney, and we forever hold them in great esteem, and thank them for their artistic touches that helped make Pirates of the Caribbean a true classic among classics!

– Rick West

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