The Secret Origin of Pleasure Island

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I am still working on the second part of my farewell to the Adventurer’s Club but the more research I have done, the more material I have uncovered. So here is a column to placate faithful readers of this column while I finish up the final farewell.

As long as this column is, I still had to edit out the second storyline created for Merriweather Pleasure and Pleasure Island in 1991 to try and tie in the Pleasure family with New Year’s Eve and why it was celebrated every night on the island. That storyline runs several pages of single-spaced type and is for another time. Today, let’s look at the beginnings of Pleasure Island and the “official” story.

Church Street Station started as a downtown entertainment concept of Bob Snow in 1972. In 1985, it drew in 1.7 million visitors annually and became the fourth-largest tourist attraction in the state right behind Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens.

Among the features of Church Street Station were several unique club restaurants including Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium that celebrated the happy time of the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties with Rosie’s Good Time Dixieland Band, bar top can-can girls and Charleston dancers. It had antique brass chandeliers, etched mirrors and leaded glass.

In addition there was the Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House that was a re-creation of an Old West saloon with the Cheyenne Stampede, country music and the Cheyenne Sweethearts. (When Michael Eisner saw how packed that club was he changed his mind about having a magic club or jazz club on Pleasure Island and turned the location into the Neon Armadillo. At one time, that location had also been considered to be a restaurant space connected to the Adventurer’s Club.)

Phineas Phogg’s Dance Club was a popular dance club and the environment was decorated with memorabilia from daring balloonists both past and present. Lili Marlene’s Aviator’s Pub and Restaurant had authentic aviation memorabilia from both World Wars.

The Orchid Garden was a romantic setting amid wrought iron balconies and balustrades, mellow old woodwork, brick floors and stained and beveled glass. It featured live rock 'n' roll from the '50s to the '90s.

There was also Crackers Seafood Restaurant and Church Street Station Exchange, a three-story shopping emporium featuring more than 50 specialty shops and eateries in a beautiful Victorian setting.

The Disney Company saw that money was leaving Disney property to go to this unique entertainment venue and decided to find some way of getting some of that income.

At a press conference on the Empress Lilly at Downtown Disney Marketplace on July 21, 1986, Disney CEO Michael Eisner told the press that he had decided that it was pretty quiet on Disney property after dark except for the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. So he had decided there was needed an after-dark entertainment for guests, Orlando residents and conventions.

Disney’s Pleasure Island was the answer with construction to begin in August. It would be a six-acre island that was scheduled to open spring 1988 and would be “a place to go when the sun goes down… in a nice Disney way.”  

Attending the press conference with a model of Pleasure Island was Madame Zenobia, who Eisner said would be in the Adventurer’s Club and “who will read your palm and tell your future and consult with our studio execs about what pictures we will make.” 

Madame Zenobia (portrayed by actress Anita Goodwin) replied, “I have some ideas.”

Also there in full beard but no mustache, pipe and sailor cap with brim was Captain Spike who would be in the club Madison’s Dive and tell salty stories about his love of a mermaid. Captain Spike was portrayed by Craig McNair Wilson who was artistic director of SAK theater (a well known improvisational theater group in Orlando that began in August 1977) and later helped shape the entertainment at both the Comedy Warehouse and the Adventurer’s Club.

Just like the pseudo-storylines of the Church Street Emporium clubs, the Disney Imagineers came up with an elaborate but never fully functional mythology. In fact, only the Adventurer’s Club came close to portraying the legacy of Merriweather Adam Pleasure. While many contributed to the storyline, it was Craig McNair Wilson who rewrote all the information so that it would sound as if it were done by “one voice.”

The concept of a manufacturing district came from an idea by architect Chris Caradine who had become enamored of a Granville Island in Vancouver, an industrial-fishing-manufacturing island under a huge bridge that was in the process of having the old buildings transformed into shops, theaters, restaurants, cafes, galleries and still some boat

To help guests understand the story, there were 27 plaques placed at the entrance of the island and on the individual buildings by the Pleasure Island “Histerical” Society. However, since the island was primarily open at night and the plaques were all black and often placed in out of the way locations and the island crowded with constantly moving guests, it was a challenge to read them.

In addition, having imbibed too much alcohol also contributed to the fact that guests weren’t able to read the plaques. Some folks seem to forget that in the Adventurer’s Club alone there are three different bars to help lubricate the guests through the evening.

In compiling this history from information on the plaques, the training book given to the original Pleasure Island cast members, the official press release summary, the information posted in the club itself, interviews with guests and cast involved with the opening year and more, I quickly found that the storyline was very convoluted and occasionally contradictory.

However, here is a "Cliffs Notes" version of that history of the island that I have put together. I doubt even the most devout Disney fan in 1989—when the island first opened and all of this information was new, fresh and available—understood much of these details.

The Empress Lilly, originally christened the “Floating Arts Palace," was a paddlewheel vessel that plied the mighty Mississippi River for twenty-five years. Boat fancier Merriweather Adam Pleasure (1873-1941?) purchased it in 1911.

In 1911, the Mississippi sidewheeler steamed into Lake Buena Vista and dropped anchor. An adventuresome Pittsburgh entrepreneur, Merriweather Adam Pleasure saw that on this island he could create a one-man dominion like Edison’s Menlo Park or William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon.

Pleasure was an inventor, industrialist and bon vivant. He envisioned a manufacturing center, research lab and development facility, as well as a social gathering spot for the famous and well-to-do.

His motto was “Fun for all, and all for fun!” Pleasure was known to all as “The Grand Funmeister” after being called that name by the U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1927.

The boat was to serve as home, guest house and entertainment center while construction began on the island. Living on the boat with his wife, Isabella; his  sons, Stewart and Henry; and his daughter, Merriam, Pleasure built his Island empire and founded a canvas manufacturing and sail fabricating industry. The Florida climate favored his business, and though the merchant sailing industry was in its twilight, pleasure yachting and the need for canvas for tents during World War I assured his immediate success.

The business was known as Pleasure Canvas and Sailmaking LTD. The first buildings went up in 1912.

The Pleasure family soon outgrew their showboat home. In 1918, they moved to a Bermuda-style mansion overlooking Lake Buena Vista. The Pleasure Family Home (Portobello Yacht Club) was designed so thatIsabella Pleasure could host hundreds of tea socials, garden parties and croquet tournaments, featuring fine food and uninhibited conversation. As Mrs. Pleasure often said, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, come sit next to me!”

Also, in 1918, the former showboat was unmoored and transformed into a summer houseboat for steaming down the tree-lined waterways of Central Florida. In 1943, young Stewart Pleasure piloted the showboat directly into the graceful span connecting Pleasure Island with the mainland that was originally built in 1914. Stewart supervised the rebuilding of the bridge in 1944, but destroyed it again on September 2, 1954. In 1971, the boat was restored to its original glory and re-commissioned as the Empress Lilly.

“Lilly Plaza,” the area directly in front of the docked steamship, was officially christened in 1922. Originally a turnaround for the limousines of guests visiting the Pleasure family houseboat, the plaza was remodeled for the July 4, 1937 debut of the 118 member Pleasure Island Philharmonic Concert Band (PIPCB) conducted by Maestro Don G. O’Vanni. The PIPCB concerts on this site always ended with a piece Mrs.  Pleasure commissioned, the haunting “Fugue for Triangle, Piccolo and Steampowered Riverboat Whistle.”

Aware of the westering circumnavigations of Irving Johnson and the youthful crews of his Yankee Clipper, Merriweather Pleasure commissioned the yacht Dominoe (named for his then-favorite pastime and yes, this was the official spelling with the additional “e” on the early Imagineering documents) in 1929, which brilliantly foresaw the awesome J-boat formula. 

With his 18-year-old daughter, Merriam, he embarked on a series of eastward 'round-the-world voyages.  He turned the business over to his two sons: “Awkward Stewart” Pleasure who pursued the sporting life and Henry who was known as “The Mad Genius of Lake Buena Vista” and succeeded in creating a Cellular Automaton (sort of a computerized robot).

Merriweather and his daughter returned from their many expeditions with a vast treasure of adventure and discovery. The trophies eventually overwhelmed Pleasure's comfortable Bermuda-style house and Mrs. Pleasure threatened to eject her husband from the house unless he found a place for the books and artifacts collected on his journeys.

An imposing building on the opposite side of the island was designed to house Pleasure’s huge personal library and archeological trophy collection. Pleasure reportedly won the plans for the building in a game of dominoes and attributed the plans throughout his life to noted architects Sir Edwin Luytens, Charles Rennie Mackinstosh, and Eliel Saarinen.

The building became the headquarters for the Adventurer’s Club in 1932. The Adventurers were Pleasure’s zany band of globe-trotting friends, yachting cronies and hangers-on who all swapped tall tales. Exotic souvenirs of the members’ outlandish expeditions and riotous adventures were displayed on the walls.

Merriam Pleasure is listed on a plaque in the Main Salon as part of the “Founder’s Circle” in addition to Otis Wren, Pamelia Perkins, Hatahway Browne and Col. Critchcow Suchbench. Merriweather Pleasure is listed on that same plaque as “Founder.”

It was also in 1932 that Merriweather Pleasure created the “Adventurer’s Creed” which is framed in the Zebra Mezzanine. “We climb the highest mountains, just to get a better view. We plumb the deepest oceans ‘cuz we’re daring, through and through. We cross the scorching desert, martinis in our hand. We ski the polar ice cap in tuxedo, looking grand. We’re reckless, brave and loyal and valiant to the end. If you come in here a stranger, you’ll exit as a friend.”

The Pleasure Perfect Upholstery shop (Changing Attitudes) had six full-time seamstresses working to refurbish the interiors of the custom yachts in the Pleasure Island dry dock. In 1934 the shop was responsible for stuffing the head of a rare Mongolian Yakoose for the Adventurer’s Club. This profitable sideline ended in 1943 when a war-time shortage of kapok put taxidermy on the endangered species list.

Between journeys, Pleasure returned to his beloved island and devoted himself to a quest for reusable energy and the conversion of some of his factories to mysterious laboratories that included the construction of an experimental flying vessel as well as broadcasting messages to outer space.

Unfortunately, the Funmeister’s good fortune ran out in 1941. The “Dominoe” was presumably lost with Merriweather, Merriam, and all hands, having been reported pitchpoled in a howling summer storm while attempting a circumnavigation of Antarctica in December 1941. After Pleasure vanished at sea, the Adventurer’s Club was closed and sealed.

Mrs. Pleasure died in 1949 resulting in the disbanding of the Pleasure Thespian Players and the closing of the Power Station (now the Comedy Warehouse) where they performed elaborate Central Florida historical pageants including the seminal “Song of the Seminole.”

The canvas business continued to be successful for more than a decade until Henry’s poor business decisions and Stewart’s lavish lifestyle forced Pleasure Canvas and Sailmaking, Inc., into bankruptcy in 1955.  As a note of finality, Hurricane Connie inflicted near-total destruction two weeks before the creditors' sale leaving the island an unsaleable shambles.  This was the same hurricane that transformed Placid Palms into Typhoon Lagoon. Many of the contents of the various buildings were strewn across Lake Buena Vista by the winds of change.

The once bustling harbor community became a ghost town. But in 1987, Disney Imagineers re-discovered the island. Some buildings were renovated and some, like the Adventurer’s Club, were reopened.

The legacy of “America’s First Family of Fun” was revived and according to Jasper W. Linedozer, the semi-official Pleasure Island historian who wrote the pseudo-historical plaques on the island, “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!’”

The actual history devised by the Imagineers continues for many, many more pages but here are some additional “histerical” insights from a variety of official sources:

In the Zebra mezzanine is a Turkish Galley “built by M.A. Pleasure as a gift for daughter Merriam’s 16th birthday 1927” which is how I determined she was 18 when she went off with her father on the Dominoe.

Directly across from the Adventurer’s Club is “Lombard Promenade” that was created in 1929. Designed by the incurably romantic Merriweather Pleasure after a trip he and wife Isabella took to San Francisco. They both fell in love with the city’s back-and-forth boulevard, Lombard Street. Isabella wanted a photograph as a souvenir, but Merriweather insisted on recreating the street itself. It later became a favorite site for the legendary, day-long hide-and seek tournaments organized by the Pleasure grandchildren.

Pleasure had grandchildren? Carefully reading some of the original plaques, the following information was available:

Merriweather Pleasure had a granddaughter, Katie, who converted the island’s Machine Shop (Doodles which became the Island Depot) into Katie’s Kustom Kars, the first female owned and operated auto customizing shop in the southeastern United States. Katie, aka “Doodles,” closed the shop in 1954 to join the Air Force as a test pilot for the only customized X-1 ever built.

Gideon Adam Pleasure (the son of Henry), born on the island in 1925, opened the Pleasure Island Publishing Headquarters (Front Page Magazine Portraits) in 1951 to publish Rutabagas, a magazine dedicated to “vibrancy through vegetables." The magazine ceased publication after seven issues.

Near the Adventurer’s Club was the West End Plaza that first opened early in 1941 by Pleasure as an Alien Landing Platform, but his wife immediately laid claim to the area for her beloved Pleasure Island Philharmonic Concert Band.

The really amazing thing about the Adventurer’s Club is that with all the recent research I have done, I have enough information to write a short book about the venue so expect another column or two about this sorely missed location in the next couple of weeks.

Don’t believe me that I know more about Pleasure Island than has ever been written? Well, the island was originally a peninsula until they dug a trench separating it from the Disney Marketplace. The trench that makes PI an island is technically a water quality drainage feature. In most locations, Disney digs aesthetically pleasing ponds to hold water and allow sediment and heavy metals to settle out before discharging to canals and rivers. At PI, the theme of an island makes that pond more like a canal. There are water control structures (weirs) at the outfall to Lake Buena Vista which provide a certain volume of water to be treated after a storm. The canal was barely sized large enough to be useful, so any work near it, like the new T-Rex Restaurant, is difficult because the water quality volume can't be reduced.