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Pirates Voyage gets into the spirit of the season

Right after Halloween, the Grand Strand goes into Christmas mode, with music, ice skating, comedy – and now pirates – to celebrate the season.

“The Carolina Opry Christmas Special” began its 27th year of yuletide shows Nov. 1, and the other house theaters have since gotten merry, adding and changing numbers from extravaganzas performed last year. The Opry also carries the spirit the longest, through Jan. 5.

The Alabama Theatre marks its 20th year of Christmas shows; “Christmas on Ice” has made a three-peat at the Palace Theatre; the Carolina Improv Company continues building on its holiday menu of topics for an evening; and the producers of “Dino’s TV Christmas Special” and “The Marvelous Wonderettes – Holiday Prom” dinner shows have reopened at The Grand Theatre in Surfside Beach.

Even pirates have gotten into the holly jolly party for this time of year, with Dolly Parton’s “Pirates Voyage Fun, Feast and Adventure” launching its first Christmas show since the former Dixie Stampede dinner theater was transformed into a seafaring experience in June 2011.

Ken McCabe, corporate director of entertainment for Pirates Voyage/Dixie Stampede, wrote the main pirates show and has unwrapped a Christmas version premiering Friday.

He and Larry McCoy, Pirates Voyage’s director of marketing, agreed that opening Pirates Voyage last summer capped a “big undertaking” costing $11 million and that the company wanted to ride the wave with that new show through at least its first year before customizing the production for a Christmas run this autumn.

“We had taken a full year to develop that full project before we even started breaking ground,” McCabe said of renovating Dixie Stampede after 18 years of shows. “We had a lot of momentum. We didn’t want to just slap something together.”

McCabe said with something so new, and developing, that melding Christmas into this format posed a hurdle, “mostly because we don’t want to lose what everybody likes about the pirates.”

Pirates meet Scrooge

“The real challenge,” he said, “was thinking about all the iconic Christmas things and not losing the pirates’ fights and swashbuckling. It’s kind of like the pirates take on Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”

That’s where Captain Scrooge fits in, joined by the Spirit of Christmas, to travel back in time and through the present to the future in the familiar story adapted in various ways and media through the years.

“That let us use the elements we have in the regular show,” McCabe said, “and introduce some new ones just for the Christmas season.”

He said this recounting of Scrooge aboard a ship includes two screens to project special Christmas images, along with a toys segment and a live nativity – two segments carried over from Dixie Stampede. Blending in more acrobats by professional actors from the regular pirates show and “more things dropping from the ceiling ... all in a black light” gave show producers more opportunities for creativity with this new presentation.

Without giving away too many special effects in the show, McCabe said the costume for the ghost spirit stands 15 feet tall, and it’s manned through someone inside, “holding on to the elbows of the giant arm extensions.”

“He’s The Wizard of Oz,” McCabe joked.

In “keeping the flavor” of pirates for this Christmas event, he said tunes worked into the plot cover more “old English-feel” titles such as “Good King Wenceslas,” “Here We Come a-Caroling” and older public domain classics.

McCoy said a “core” cast of 15 fuel the show in multiple roles, with “a lot more behind the scenes” and serving the meals to the audience.

Credit also extends to the animals crossing water in the show, those with hooves appearing for Christmas – including a donkey, sheep and camels – and year-round stars with fins, sea lions and mermaids.

McCabe said a crew of “excellent trainers” find out what capabilities the animals have and the script incorporates those skills.

“It’s just getting them adjusted,” he said, “with changes in scene work.”

For the finale, McCabe summed it up as “spectacular,” with “giant Christmas trees that rise out of the water” and huge ornaments that fall from above as all the ships are illuminated.

McCoy said the company invested $1.5 million in special effects for Christmas.

“This is a brand new show,” he said, “a first one in a long time on the beach.”

He said he and company colleagues have noticed how “people really seem to get the story line” in general when shifting to a holiday offering, even with sailing pirates and Christmas together, to give crowds a “magical impression.”

“You feel like you’re part of it,” McCoy said. “You really feel like you’re in a Christmas village.”

McCabe said in lining up all the last-minute preparations in the past two weeks, after months of arranging details, “I’ve lost Halloween.”

“It’s funny,” he said, “because I get into the spirit of the season by the time Christmas rolls around.”