Who Killed Pleasure Island?

by Steve Russo, staff writer

Pleasure Island, we hardly knew ye. By now, I'm certain you've all heard the news: On September 27, 2008, Pleasure Island will cease to exist as we know it today. Walt Disney World Resort announced on June 27 that it will be completely re-imagining the Downtown Disney area, with new shopping, dining and other experiences, including a completely re-imagined Pleasure Island.

Not quite 20 years old, Pleasure Island will close its six remaining nightclubs: Adventurer's Club, Comedy Warehouse, 8Trax, Mannequins Dance Palace, BET SoundStage Club, and Motion. These clubs are destined to be replaced by additional retail and dining establishments. Here's a quote from Downtown Disney Vice President Kevin Lansberry: "Our guests tell us they want additional shopping and dining experiences…" Additional shopping? Really? Who are these "guests" and don't they consider the Marketplace, the West Side, Mouse Gear, the Emporium, resort gift shops and a gift shop at the exit of every freakin' attraction to be enough of a shopping experience!? Sorry, I got carried away for a moment.

So what happened? How did Pleasure Island go from being the "nighttime place to be" to an afterthought in just a few short years? Who killed Pleasure Island… and why? Let's put on our Columbo wrinkled raincoats and our "Disney CSI" badges and examine the evidence.

We can begin right here on MousePlanet where, in his Walt Disney World Park Update of June 30, 2008 (read it here), Mark Goldhaber offered up some insights. Mark wrote:

While it's unclear whether the demise of Pleasure Island is partly due to its location, the fact that it was the easiest way to get between the Marketplace and the West Side surely didn't help. Foot traffic between the two more family-friendly areas was likely part of the reason that Disney changed the admission policy at the Island from hard-ticketed location to all-access with only the clubs requiring admission…

To examine this, we need to look at a brief history of how the current Downtown Disney area came to be. In 1975, the Marketplace began as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village and was promoted as a "restful shopping atmosphere similar to a New England seaside village." Pleasure Island opened in 1989 and provided a very different experience from the Shopping Village for its guests, offering themed nightclubs restaurants and shops—and it required an admission ticket. The area became known, collectively, as Downtown Disney.

This period was, arguably, the glory years for Pleasure Island. It boasted a number of themed dance clubs that attracted a loyal local following as well as a number of vacationing guests looking for a night out. There was live entertainment every evening at the West End stage. Often there were dancers performing on a stage backed with a giant video screen as a backdrop. In addition, the Island boasted the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club, two establishments that embodied what Disney is (was?) all about—unique, high-quality entertainment that provides distinction between Disney and its competitors. Most would agree that the success of Pleasure Island began the death watch for another local club scene, Church Street Station.

In 1997, the West Side opened as a bit of a hybrid. It offered some top notch entertainment options with the House of Blues, Cirque du Soleil's show La Nouba, DisneyQuest, and Bongos Cuban Café. It also provided additional dining (Wolfgang Puck's, Bongo's, etc.) as well as shopping opportunities with the Virgin Megastore and a number of smaller specialty shops.

During this period, admission to Pleasure Island was by ticket only. Once admission was paid, guests could wander the Island freely—visiting any of the clubs (adhering to age restrictions where applicable) or taking in the shows at the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club. Guests who were trying to navigate between the Marketplace and the West End needed to detour around the island—at best an inconvenience, sometimes an uncomfortable experience. I'm speculating here but I'd offer that Disney received a number of complaints about the foot traffic situation.

The change in admission policy occurred in August 2004. Pleasure Island began its "open gate" policy, allowing free entry for one and all. Entry into any of the clubs required an admission ticket (and charge), but non-paying guests were free to wander the Island as they pleased. This introduced a number of families with underage children into what had been predominantly an adults-only venue where alcohol was served openly. It also opened the door for local teens to abandon the mall and use Pleasure Island as a hangout. Their presence apparently made many guests feel uncomfortable. That, and a couple of occurrences of criminal activity, led to a crackdown on gang-related activities in 2007.

Soon, Disney removed the West End stage, stopped the nightly New Year's Eve midnight celebration, and all of a sudden the whole atmosphere of Pleasure Island had changed. Many would say that was the beginning of the end. Personally, I believe it was more the final straw—it just took a few more months for the dust to settle.

From that evidence, it would seem that Pleasure Island's location had a lot to do with the changes that ultimately brought about its downfall. Others might argue that management didn't do a very good job of keeping the clubs up with current trends. Both premises seem valid.

Still others might point to the shortage of dining venues as an accomplice in the Island's death. Kevin Lansberry also said, "Right now we believe we've got a shortage of dining capacity and shopping capacity, so we'll be adding to those areas, and we'll be looking at some specialized entertainment options also…"

Love it or hate it, since its inception several years ago, the Disney Dining Plan has had a major impact on the availability of dining at Walt Disney World. While it was once possible to get same-day dining reservations at all but the most popular establishments, most of us are now forced to reserve tables months in advance. Who could blame Disney for capitalizing on a need that they themselves created?

I could argue that management could alleviate this shortage by reopening several of the closed (or mostly closed) dining venues on property. Am I the only one with fond memories of dining at the Odyssey Restaurant at Epcot? Or Ariel's at the Beach Club? How about Tangaroa Terrace in the Polynesian Resort? The Adventureland Veranda, or the Tomorrowland Noodle Station in Magic Kingdom (OK… fond memories could be pushing it a bit)? It's certain that Disney needs more restaurant tables but, does it have to be at the expense of Pleasure Island?

Let's not lose sight of the fact that, above all, Disney is a business. As unique and entertaining as the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club are, are they profitable? Based upon my personal observations, I'd have to say that the answer would be too close to call. Because of the type of show, the seating practices, and the show's relatively short length, it would be difficult for anyone to have more than a single drink in the Comedy Warehouse. In fact, I sometimes hadn't finished my one drink by the end of the show. Some guests do not even order a drink. How can this relatively light revenue stream support the actors, musicians, technicians, wait staff, management and building services? Not very well is my bet.

What of the Adventurer's Club? The last couple of years have seen a significant drop in wait staff. I've heard many patrons complain that it had become almost impossible to get a drink, or a refill, without devoting ample time for a trip to the bar and a lengthy wait, while probably missing out on some show or activity taking place in another room. If you don't want to miss any of a show, you don't get that drink—which has a direct impact on revenue and profit.

While only a few people seem to be lamenting the loss of the dance clubs, there appears to be a significant groundswell of support for Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club. Unlike the others, these two establishments represented a destination for many. While there is letter-writing and petition activity ongoing, no one knows if three months represents enough time to get Disney management to rethink its decision. Disney may have taken a lesson from the removal of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Magic Kingdom. At that time, they provided fairly lengthy notice of the decision and were subjected to many months of fan outrage. It appears they're hoping for a much quicker death here.

So where does this leave us? Who killed Pleasure Island? Based upon the evidence, I'd offer that it was Disney's management that allowed Pleasure Island to wallow in mediocrity while other clubs were continually changing with the trends. Just look up the road at Universal's CityWalk for an example of doing it better. Why didn't they make the effort to keep the clubs current? Or recognize the problem with foot traffic earlier and start rearranging locations?

Ultimately, what Disney does to modify Pleasure Island may be very positive. By all accounts, the introduction of Raglan Road has been a success. More of the same may bring additional family venues to Downtown Disney. However, that success will come at the expense of the club patron that will take his or her business to downtown Orlando, CityWalk, or the next reincarnation of Church Street Station.

Many were hoping the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurer's Club would somehow escape the axe, but at this writing there's nothing to indicate that would be the case. Will they get a last-minute reprieve? Will they resurface elsewhere on property as some have predicted (for the Adventurer's Club, anyway)? Only time will tell. Doesn't it seem like Disney should be able to expand dining while keeping these entertainment venues operating?

I know that Disney is a business, and, like many businesses, they expect every nook and cranny of their enterprise to be profitable. I would hope that, just this once, they might look beyond the profitability of each establishment and recognize that unique entertainment offerings which improve the guests' experience might be best left alone.

Now that we know whokilled Pleasure Island, the next logical question is why? I believe that can be answered with one word—profitability.

That's my opinion. What's yours?