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Walt's Passing, and WED's Tribute

In 1966, while the Pirates attraction was finalizing the conceptualization and well into the process of development and construction, Walt's health started to deteriorate after years of smoking Lucky Strikes. Some of Walt's closest friends, family and co-workers knew that the problem was quite serious, though when Walt visited the hospital to have a lung removed, the Disney Company issued reports about his receiving treatment for an old "polo injury." Walt was quite worried about the effect that his death might have on the value of his company for the shareholders.

KFWB AM radio in Hollywood announces Walt Disney's death in a special bulletin on December 15, 1966.

However, he needn't have worried. His brother Roy continued his legacy and started working right away with WED on the current projects (such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Florida resort.) Upon Walt's passing on December 15, 1966, newspapers, radio, television, and world leaders around the globe all mourned his loss and praised his legacy.

The website-based Walt Disney Family Museum has a fantastic multimedia history of Walt's life, and it describes the events that led to his untimely death:

"In late 1966, Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer. Years of smoking had caught up with him. Walt told his family that they shouldn't be concerned, that he'd have the cancer removed and quickly recover. But on Monday, November 7, the surgeon told Lilly, Diane, and Sharon that the cancer had spread and that Walt had between six months and two years to live. There were a few more visits to the studio... and to WED. But Walt spent most of the next few weeks with his family, making plans for the future: "I'm going to concentrate on the parks and building EPCOT," he told son-in-law Ron. On November 30, he went back to the hospital. And on December 15, he died. The flag at Disneyland flew at half mast. And as commentator Eric Severeid said, "We'll never see his like again."

WED continued to work hard at getting the characters constructed and installed in the new attraction. The team of engineers responsible for developing and perfecting the technology (which included Roger Broggie, Wathel Rogers, Fred Joerger and others) were continuing their work despite the pain and loss felt throughout the company at the loss of its leader.

As Marc Davis recalled: "[Walt] seemed to be satisfied with the way everything was coming together... and then shortly after that he was gone. That was an awfully rough day."

Show Design and Atmosphere

There was a lot more than animation and ride systems involved with the creation of POTC. In order to create the "Disney magic," WED continued to lead the theme park industry in creating fully immersive entertainment experiences, and POTC was to be the crown jewel of such efforts to date. Claude Coats, one of Walt's most trusted creative men, was the Senior Show Designer for the attraction, and he worked hard with some of WED's amazing effects and atmosphere designers, such as Yale Gracey, Bill Martin, and Don Edgren. "X" Atencio, meanwhile, was had at work creating the script, song, and storyline for the ride, and he proceeded to record some of the more notable pirate voices with Disney's reliable voice talents Thurl Ravenscroft and Paul Frees, both of whom can be heard on many other famous Disney attractions, such as the Haunted Mansion.

X Atencio and George Burns worked together to create the famous "Yo Ho" tune that plays throughout the attraction. Listen to this early demo version of the song, which differs signifcantly from the final version.

From cloudy skies to misty grottos, the atmosphere and special effects in the Pirates attraction are an integral part of the fantastic "reality" that the show imparts. One of the most dramatic effects created was the burning town at the ride's climax. Yale Gracey developed the method by which the imitated flames were created (which involves a clever use of fans and lighting, as seen below), and the effect was almost too real for some. Arrow Development's Karl Bacon recalls walking through the set with Anaheim's Fire Department Chief:

"I remember the head of the fire department coming through the lower doors way down there, and he looked up there and saw it and said "You can't have fire in here!" As he got closer he saw that it was done with colored plastic. He was going to shut them down!"

The ride installation continued as planned. The Pirates of the Caribbean would prove unofficially to be WED's tribute to Walt Disney's leadership and vision. The attraction opened April 19, 1967 and has spawned replicas at Walt Disney World, in Disneyland Tokyo, and at Disneyland Paris. It is probably the most popular Disney attraction ever, according to many fans.

What is amazing, though, is that in spite of the differences in technology and audience expectations, POTC remains Disney's most cherished attraction, more than 30 years after it was first unveiled. In the POTC souvenir guide Disneyland published in the '70s, the magic of bringing these characters to life was described succinctly:

"The simple eye-blink of a pirate is a result of many years of research and development by everyone at WED. The basic approach taken by the Imagineers is best described in this sentence from one of its designers: "We work as a team with Walt; tossing out ideas, working with them, building on them, and finally coming up with a product that we are all proud to say is 'Disney' all the way." This is the WED way, which might just mean that Imagineers tell many tales."

Buy the Official Guidebook to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Attraction and Films here!

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