The centerpiece of Disneyland's New Orleans Square (and an anchor of Adventureland in any other park it's since been replicated at), the attraction was originally conceived of as a partially animated wax museum walkthrough before the realities of crowd control and the technical advances from the 1964 World's Fair projects upgraded the plans into a full boat ride full of Audio Animatronics. The end result, which opened in 1967, is widely considered to be a high contender for Imagineering's masterpiece and has become a standard that other rides are judged against.
The ride's structure in most variants is a journey across time (the abridged Magic Kingdom version becoming the exception). As guests board boats in a sleepy lagoon where it's Always Night and long past the days of the Golden Age of Piracy, there seem to be no pirates in sight. However, the leering skull of a Jolly Roger becomes a call to adventure and a warning that Dead Men Tell No Tales ends into a plunge down into caverns full of the remains of a long-dead pirate crew and the cursed treasure they collected during those sinful years. The cave gives way to show us this crew in life, sacking a Caribbean port town. From attacking the village fortress to dunking the mayor to various sins of lust and gluttony, this raid culminates in fire as the city burns while the pirates sing that iconic sea shanty "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)". The flames spread further into town and after the boats pass prisoner pirates trying to coax the guard dog into giving them the keys, a drunken gunfight has broken out in the village armoury and gunpowder storage, suggesting the pirates are about to meet their fates while the boats return to the present and back to the lagoon.
The Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Paris have played around with the structure, while Tokyo is essentially a copy of Disneyland's missing a skeleton cave scene or two. Magic Kingdom's variant, hosted in a specially built sub-area of Adventureland called Caribbean Plaza, starts off in a Spanish fortress with audio suggesting the guards are dealing with pirates coming from the coast. The boats evacuate guests through a series of tunnels going past only a couple of the skeleton scenes before plunging down into the bay. This version had a more solid ending with the gunfight relocated to a treasure room where pirates had tied up the guards and were drunkenly shooting in victory. Disneyland Paris's version similarly starts in a fort, but one that has long been ravaged by time. The structure is reversed and expanded here as well with the pirate scenes starting while boats travel through flooded sections of the fort going past the jail scene and pirates crossing over via ropes before plunging down to the village, which features a scene featuring two animatronics swordfighting. The skeleton scenes are placed at the end of the ride, with the gunpowder finally going off and the explosion sending us back to the present to see what became of the pirates.
The version of the ride located in Shanghai Disneyland, given the subtitle "Battle for the Sunken Treasure" is much more of a Recursive Adaptation of the films than its predecessors, featuring a battle between Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones that combines traditional animatronics and sets (including a few nods to the original ride) with advanced projection effects on immense screens for a more blockbuster experience.
Pirates of the Caribbean provides examples of the following tropes:
- Accordion to Most Sailors: In the burning town scene, an accordion is one of the instruments played by the pirates merrily singing "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)".
- Adaptation Distillation: Magic Kingdom's ride is essentially the "Reader's Digest" version of the original Disneyland attraction, eliminating several scenes in the caves as well in the town, and having only one drop instead of two. The reason for this was due to the clone of the ride having to built on a very quick schedule, as there was a lot of angry guest demand to bring the ride over to Florida. The original intention was that the attraction was going to remain exclusive to Disneyland, as Imagineers felt that Floridians would be tired of seeing pirates, as much of Florida culture is baked in pirate lore. There instead would've been an equivalent attraction called the Western River Expedition, which would have been themed around the Wild West, as by comparison Imagineers thought that Floridians would be far more intrigued by the tales of the Old West, because of cowboys and the like being mostly absent from Florida's history.
- An Arm and a Leg: A left hand and both legs for one skeleton pirate, actually. And a stab In the Back.
- Big Beautiful Woman: Tiny is described as a "winsome wench" by the auctioneer.
- Boarding Party: In Paris.
- Bowdlerise: In 1997 the ride was changed: the section depicting pirates chasing women (and the implied rape) was considered to be politically incorrect, and was changed to the women carrying trays of loot to try to keep them from the pirates.
- The pirate sitting next to the barrel was originally holding a woman's torn dress, and a frightened woman peeking out from the barrel. Overtime, it was changed to a pirate eating a drumstick, with a dog barking at a cat in the barrel, and today the pirate is holding a treasure map, Jack Sparrow is peeking out the barrel, and the dog barking at Sparrow.
- In 2017, it was announced that the Wench Auction would be altered into a scene of the pirates auctioning off the townsfolk's possessions at gunpoint with the Redhead being turned into a Pirate Girl named Redd, who is one of the leaders of the auction, holding a pistol and even gaining a speaking role (with the voice of Grey DeLisle, no less).
- Canon Immigrant: In the wake of the movie series' success, Jack Sparrow, Davy Jones and Barbossa were brought into the ride with a story involving a race between Jack and Barbossa's crew to acquire the town's treasure, as well as Barbossa wanting to find and capture Jack as well. Blackbeard, from the fourth film, was later added into the ride as well in 2011.
- Cousin Oliver: The reaction from some fans about adding Jack Sparrow to the ride and 'changing the plot' of the ride to fit him in.
- Creator Cameo: Scriptwriter X. Atencio provided the voice of the talking Jolly Roger.
- Darker and Edgier: The Paris version of the attraction has traces of this, as it drives home the moral of "greed kills" even further by rearranging the scenes in the ride. The ride starts off with the pirates attacking Port Royal, then the riders go under an arsenal that explodes, which "kills" the riders and sends them to Davy Jones' Locker, where they see the corpses of the pirates from earlier, having now been cursed to live their afterlife there for all eternity. This was deflated with the 2017 installation of movie elements however with the "Jack Sparrow victorious with the treasure" scene added to other versions taking over the caves's treasure room.
- Dem Bones: In the opening scenes, it appears that some of the dead skeletons in the caves are still moving, being forever cursed.
- Demoted to Extra: Aside from Jack Sparrow, not many of the characters from the films were brought back into the ride and the few that do only appear briefly. Barbossa is shown commanding the Wicked Wench in the fortress attack scene (while he is placed in the skeleton caves at Disneyland Paris), and Blackbeard and Davy Jones were shown on a mist screen in the skeleton caves (with Jones providing some narration at the end) until being removed in 2017.
- Even Evil Can Be Loved: From "Yo-Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me)", the theme song of the ride:We're devils, blighters and ne'er-do-well cads
Drink up, me 'earties, yo-ho
Aye, but we're loved by our mommies and dads
Drink up, me 'earties, yo-ho
- Exactly What I Aimed At: In the Shangai version, Jack Sparrow fires near Davy Jones, who taunts Jack for missing. The shot Jack made ended up making a whole that floods the ship with water.
- Heroes Want Redheads: Pirates do anyway.
- Ironic Name: The overweight wench is named Tiny.
- Infinite Ammo: Not once do the animatronic pirates reload their single-shot pistols, though they fire multiple shots each
- Mythology Gag: The famous "dog with the keys" prison scene from the original Disneyland ride has been recreated in the Shanghai version, in skeletal form.
- Pet Gets the Keys: While the ride is taking you through the attack on Port Royal, you can see and hear several prisoners trying to coax a mangy dog into bringing them the keys to their cell. The dog has the keys in its mouth, but doesn't seem certain about going to the cell door.
- Pirate Girl: A painting in the skeleton caves implies this is what the Redhead became, something the Imagineers would take into mind when reworking the Auction scene. Additionally, Disneyland's queue features portraits of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
- Pirate Parrot: Several, with one known as Peg-Leg Pete (not that Pete) once functioning as the mascot of the Magic Kingdom version.
- Politically Correct History: The ride is noticeable for once containing scenes that were considered less politically correct (brides being sold, pirates chasing wenches, a naked girl hiding in a barrel) that have since been replaced by "family friendly" versions (townspeople forfeiting their belongings, women chasing pirates away with brooms, Jack Sparrow hiding in a barrel). Disney Legend X Atencio famously decried the changes, saying that the ride is called "Pirates of the Caribbean", not "Boy Scouts of the Caribbean".
- Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What the pirates do to Port Royal in the ride, though most of the rape implications have been removed over the years.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: While normally the scenery would attempt to be as believable as possible, the (real) restaurant opposite of the ride, The Blue Bayou, could easily be mistaken as part of the scenery.
- Rolling Pin of Doom: An angry woman chases a pirate with one.
- Show Some Leg: The redhead.
- Society Marches On: In 2017, 50 years after its premiere, the ride decided to alter one of its most famous scenes. The "Buy-a-Bride"/"We Wants the Redhead" scene now has the redhead as a pirate forcing wealthy citizens to give them their valuables. This was an incredibly hotly-debated move among fans as proponents claimed the scene made light of sexual abuse and human trafficking (especially to women) while opponents (some of which were female) argued the scene accurately depicts the immoral type of scoundrels pirates were and was just too iconic of a scene to be changed.
- Tempting Fate: The "pooped pirate" drunkenly waves a map and key to a treasure vault, boasting that Jack Sparrow will never see it. Someone is watching him while hiding in a barrel...
- Undead Author: Both Davy Jones and Blackbeard voice their objections when it's said that "Dead men tell no tales."Davy Jones: Ah, but they do tell tales, so says I...Davy Jones.
- Viewers Are Goldfish: One of the more criticized parts of the movie-based updates to the ride is the new script's continuous efforts to remind guests that the Pirates are after Jack in addition to the treasure and always referring to him as "Captain Jack Sparrow" despite one of the series' running gags being that almost no one respects Jack enough to call him Captain. Additionally, Davy Jones and Blackbeard have a tendency to constantly identify themselves as such in both the limited mist screen dialog loops and the upramp/exit audio.