The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Extending the Magic of the Pirates of the Caribbeanby Tom Richards, contributing writer
Join us for a fresh look at the Castillo Del Morro, the Spanish fort that houses one of the Magic Kingdom's best adventures.
Much digital ink has been spilt concerning Walt Disney World's relatively recent trend towards "interactive" queues at some of its most popular attractions. The Hundred Acre Woods at The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction and the expanded graveyard at the venerable Haunted Mansion are two Magic Kingdom favorites that received the interactive treatment in recent years.
The reviews for these queues have been, for the most part, positive, although there are some detractors who feel the funds and creative energy might have been spent on creating additional attractions that would, logically, spread visitors out across the park and reduce long lines. Nonetheless, as the attention span of the average guest continues to shrink or disappear altogether, it seems like the interactive element is here to stay.
During a recent visit to Walt Disney World, my family and I were pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the Magic Kingdom's longest, and at this point, non-interactive, lines was still highly entertaining and wonderfully realized in detail and in atmosphere.
The queue at the Magic Kingdom's Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is one of the most atmospheric areas to be found in the entire park. This past June, we found ourselves in the "stand by" line on a very rainy afternoon. For the first time in many years, we spent a considerable amount of time in line. As so often happens while travelling, this unplanned experience lead to a sense of wonder—wonder about the design and inspiration for the Castillo Del Morro, the official name of the Spanish fort that houses this popular attraction.
A little research uncovered the fact that the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan was the primary inspiration for the Imagineers as they brought the iconic Disneyland attraction east. Sadly, Puerto Rico wasn't on our way home. Undaunted, we continued our search for a similar fortress nearby that we could explore. St. Augustine, Florida was just over two hours from Walt Disney World. We booked two nights there and explored a real Spanish fortress very similar to the one we've visited countless times at the Magic Kingdom.
The Castillo Del Morro in Adventureland captures the expansive Castillo de San Marcos located in St. Augustine on Florida's eastern coast. The Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument supervised by the National Park Service, offers an authentic glimpse into the past, a past that included fortresses, colonial towns, pirates, cannons, international skirmishes, and the lucrative trade market. According to the walking tour provided by the National Park Service, the Castillo de San Marcos is one of the oldest standing structures in North America. Its construction began in 1672, and its current appearance reflects its final completion in 1756. The Pirate of the Caribbean film series captures the look and feel of this historic structure as well as the surrounding town of St. Augustine. There's a feeling of stepping into history here, surrounded by ancient walls and welcomed by wide open vistas that stretch out for miles.
The storied history of the fort, which was under Spanish, British, and ultimately American rule, is reflected in the character of the building and the surrounding historic area as well. The official national park literature explains that the fort was originally "built by the Spanish to protect their vast empire in the Americas," and it is this design that is reminiscent of the Castillo Del Morro at the Magic Kingdom. The fort in St. Augustine was designed using a "bastion system" creating a "star-like outline formed by diamond shaped projections, called bastions, on each corner of the fort." At each bastion point, guards would stand watch in the garitas, or sentry boxes. These design elements are clearly reflected in the design of the favorite Adventureland attraction.
As guests wind their way through the vast Pirates of the Caribbean queue, there's an authenticity that helps guests suspend their disbelief and succumb to the adventures that await guests on the attraction itself.
A large drawbridge, the only way in or out of the Castillo, is found at the entry to the attraction, tucked inside the outer walls of the structure. (At the Magic Kingdom, it serves to separate guests into two lines.) The heavy chains, incredibly thick doors, and the dark, damp feeling of this area are very convincing. In St. Augustine, similar structures mark the entrance to the fort; the lengths that Imagineers went to create an authentic experience are striking at this point. Another detail from the historic fort, the thickness of the outer walls that varies from 14 to 19 feet thick, is echoed in the Castillo Del Morro as well. In order to ensure the strength of the fort, the builders of the original Castillo created these thick walls that could withstand cannon attacks.
At the Castillo de San Marcos, the walls are made of coquina, a porous stone that "compresses under the impact of cannon fire rather than shattering, making the Castillo practically indestructible." The thickness of the Magic Kingdom's fort, an unnecessary and expensive detail in modern construction, adds to the feeling of reality as guests wind their way towards their pirate adventures. It one of the many details that may go unnoticed on a conscious level, but one that adds immeasurably to the overall emotional response to the experience.
Other details, like the guardrooms and the town jail, are also recreated at the Magic Kingdom. As the line winds around and around, guests may encounter several small rooms tucked away in corners or placed between pathways. These rooms are modeled after the guardrooms of the original forts. Rooms like these would have been used by guards to rest, cook, socialize, and play games. In Pirates of the Caribbean, one of these small rooms is occupied by a pair of skeletal pirates playing chess. (Legend has it that Imagineer Marc Davis set the chess pieces in such a manner that with any move, either skeletal pirate would find himself in "checkmate.") Several of these rooms feature windows with thick, black bars stretching across their windows; these reflect the use of small rooms in historic forts as town jails.
Parts of the St. Augustine fort were once used as storage for military materials such as gunpowder and cannonballs. This historical fact is reflected in the piles of cannonballs, batteries of cannons, and kegs filled with gunpowder stored deep within the queue in the Castillo Del Morro. The curved ceilings, the vaulted casements, the narrow stairs, the cutouts in the thick walls, and the many sentry boxes are also historically accurate. The atmosphere of the Disney created Castillo Del Morro, however, trumps the original. The cool, air-conditioned passages, the dark hallways dimly lit with flickering candlelight, the ominous music, and the anticipation of pirate adventures creates a queue that is surprisingly interesting in and of itself, even without the addition of interactive elements and technological distractions.
It was very reassuring to discover that once again, the genius of those early Imagineers proved to be so tasteful and so timeless. Please be sure to take in some of these amazing details during your next visit to Pirates of the Caribbean and should the opportunity arise, plan to stop at St. Augustine to tour a National Landmark and an intrinsically interesting part of America's past.