Farewell to Pleasure Island

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

"If the guests don't understand the story, then it is not their fault. It is our fault because we have not told the story clearly"

– Walt Disney talking to Imagineer John Hench when they were discussing why some things were not working at the early Disneyland.

One of the reasons for the massive changes at Pleasure Island is that, over the years, guests and cast members did not know or understand the story behind the island.  As a result, it never seemed to make a difference when changes were made over the years that contradicted the story.

“Our decision is largely based on guest feedback,” said the official Walt Disney World statement in July 2008 explaining why the clubs would all close by the end of September, “We are seeing more demand for shopping and dining experiences and less demand for clubs.  Certainly, we understand that some guests may be disappointed by the closing of Adventurer’s Club, but we believe it is necessary for implementing our long-term vision for Downtown Disney.”

I came out to Orlando to visit my brother in the Summer of 1989 and it was an exciting time at Walt Disney World because the Disney-MGM Studios theme park had just opened as well as the innovative water park, Typhoon Lagoon, with its rich storytelling incorporated into the experience.

The Village Marketplace had also expanded with the addition of Pleasure Island that was an adult-oriented area designed to compete with the popular clubs and social interaction at Church Street Station in Downtown Orlando.

Originally, that area was going to be themed to New Orleans with the Empress Lilly restaurant beginning the story of a riverboat stopping in that port. However, things constantly change at Disney and the New Orleans concept was used for a new resort and the Imagineers came up with a storyline about the mysterious Merriweather Adam Pleasure who arrived on the island in 1911 and created several businesses before being lost at sea almost three decades later.

"Fun for all, and all for fun!” was the motto of this delightful eccentric who was nicknamed the “Grand Funmeister.”

The 1990 edition of the Birnbaum Guide to the Walt Disney Word Resort presented a "Cliffs Notes" version of the Pleasure Island story, but missed many of the wonderful stories of the Pleasure family:

“Although Walt Disney World is not otherwise noted for its historic antecedents, a recent ‘discovery’ may change all that. Imagineers tell us that right beside the Empress Lilly at the Disney Village Marketplace, an island was recently unearthed where an enterprising, larger-than-life 19th century ship merchant, one Merriweather Adam Pleasure, held court.

“Though the merchant sailing trade was in a decline at the time of his residence, the upsurge of leisure yachting assured the success of Pleasure's Canvas & Sailmaking, Inc. The booming business spawned Pleasure Island, a community developed to abet Mr. Pleasure's pursuit of adventure and excitement. So the story goes. . . and continues.

“According to local legend ,Pleasure turned his entire operation over to his sons while he circumnavigated the globe, but he was lost at sea in 1939. Pleasure Island soon fell into disrepair due to the neglect of his lazy offspring. Enter Disney Imagineers, who have transformed the abandoned lofts, warehouses, and factories into an entertainment complex of nightclubs, restaurants, shops, and movie theaters.”

In one of my earliest columns for MousePlanet, I shared a much more complete version of the Merriweather Adam Pleasure story, but even in my account from original Imagineering sources there were elements of the story that were never fully documented and were to be “discovered” by the guests when they visited the island.

How did this island of thriving, unique businesses become a nighttime entertainment venue?  When Pleasure disappeared at sea, his sons, Henry and Stewart, took over the island and the Pleasure enterprises. Their mismanagement led to bankruptcy in 1955.  Hurricane Connie hit that same year, and Pleasure Island was abandoned. Hurricane Connie was the same storm that devastated Typhoon Lagoon.

In 1987, archaeologists uncovered the site and its remains, and a large-scale reclamation project was begun. In 1989, the new Pleasure Island was reopened and dedicated to the legacy of Merriweather Adam Pleasure with seven nightclubs, 12 shops, and a multiscreen movie theater, although there were many architectural and furnishing items that remained from the many decades of the Pleasure family living on the island.

I have given walking tours of the island over the years, recounting the Pleasure family stories and pointing out some of the little hidden aspects that were never officially recorded but enrich the experience.

In 2005, I finally decided to record the information on the various plaques on Pleasure Island when I realized that some of them had already disappeared.  You can read those memorable plaques I was able to record in two parts here and here. (If you have any information of what was on the plaques that had already disappeared, please don’t hesitate to let me know so I can share it with everyone.  I was disappointed when these columns first appeared three years ago that no one had any additional information like the plaque for the Fireworks Factory.)

The Fireworks Factory was where Merriweather Pleasure manufactured fireworks, until he accidentally blew up the building with a stray spark from his pipe (although another account claims it was a cigar), sending some items flying as far as Typhoon Lagoon—where they remain today.  That building has undergone massive changes.  It was originally a restaurant in 1989 that showed signs of the explosion accident and was decorated with authentic firework props from the Grucci family.

Operated by Levy Restaurants, this barbeque restaurant featured items like hot chicken wings, barbecued chicken, etc. (themed into that “burnt” story).  However, it became the Wildhorse Saloon and then later the dance club, Motion, and in the process lost that Pleasure family storyline and the connection to the rest of the Island’s history.

Merriweather's Market was a food court but it closed in 1993 and later became the Pleasure Island Jazz Company and recently the Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant. Again, each new change chipped away at the original story and how that area related to the other areas on the island.

The story for Pleasure Island was very detailed and complicated in order to encompass everything from a nightly celebration of New Year's Eve (that ended in 2005) to a Jessica's of Hollywood lingerie shop (with the iconic figure of Jessica Rabbit swinging her massive leg seductively back and forth that was removed and “lost” in 2006) to an Avigators Supply shop that featured the original Pleasure Island mascot of a flying alligator (the “Avigator”).

Since its opening in May of 1989, the story of the Pleasure family began to gradually shrink instead of expanding. Guests and cast members were unaware of the deep backstory and were more than content to just party on the narrow, winding streets.  (The main street of the island is unnamed unless you discover a crate in the waiting line at the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland at Magic Kingdom. That crate has the street address for the Adventurer’s Club.)

Disney fans, myself included, will especially miss the Adventurer’s Club, designed by Imagineer Joe Rhode with special magical effects supplied by magician Doug Henning.  Disney expert Jeff Pepper is doing an outstanding service on his Web site by reprinting some excerpts from the “Adventurers Almanac” publication.

An excerpt from the first issue can be found at this site, but Jeff has reprinted excerpts from other issues, as well. The “Adventurer's Almanac” was a free newsletter sent by mail to “honorary members of the Adventurer's Club” for a few years after the official opening and demonstrated not only the great excitement that the Imagineers had for Pleasure Island but the richness of the backstory for every area.

That first issue had an article on why all the bartenders at the club are called “Nash.”  All the bartenders are the descendants of Gilbert Nash who introduced Pleasure to the potent mixture known as Jungle Juice and Pleasure declared that “no one but Nash will tend this bar."

I do not have copies of that publication and would love to have copies to write a fuller appreciation of the Adventurer’s Club.

The Imagineers’ original description of Pleasure Island ended with the following thought:  "Along the streets of this reawakened Island you can sometimes catch a glimpse of a portly, but strangely ethereal man, dressed in a yachting cap and natty plus-fours. Or perhaps you'll be sitting in a restaurant booth or a cozy corner of a nightclub when you hear a voice murmur quietly, 'Fun for all—and all for fun!' "

Maybe the reason that phenomenon didn’t happen is the old boy would hardly recognize the place. It wasn’t just the fact that according to legend, Pleasure’s family ran the island into ruin after Merriweather’s disappearance or the fact that Imagineers “discovered” the island and renovated it in 1989, adapting existing buildings into nightclubs and stores.  It was the fact that the island continued to change drastically in response to the perceived business needs and those changes didn’t follow the established story.

Now, for a variety of reasons, it is just another business decision to completely eliminate another legacy of the Michael Eisner era and move forward into a great big beautiful “sameness” of third-party participants.  For those of us who love Disney entertainment, there is less than three months to go and say our final goodbyes to the memory of Merriweather Adam Pleasure.