In 1959, a glittering new amusement park beckoned just off Route 128 in Wakefield.
Billed as “Disneyland of the East“Pleasure Island had it all: themed restaurants, simulated gunfights, and 80 acres of rides and attractions built to rival the house of the mouse.”
The new park had big dreams but quickly burned out and was closed after only eleven seasons.
A few reminders of its existence remain today, including “Pleasure Island Road” signs off Interstate 95/Route 128. Oh, and an animatronic whale nestled in an office park (more on that in a moment).
Pleasure Island’s brief operation ended more than 50 years ago and the site has long since been redeveloped. Why are the Pleasure Island Road signs still there today?
As in New England, the answer has a lot to do with local history.
Designed by CV Wood, the man who planned and monitored Pleasure Island, the island founded by Disneyland a few years earlier, opened on June 22, 1959. Creators hoped to attract 1.2 million guests in the first season, according to author Robert McLaughlin, co-founder of the island Pleasure Island friends who has written several books about the park.
“It was pretty cool, except for one small problem: We’ve had more rain that season … than we’ve had since about 1927, I think,” he told Boston.com.
Pleasure Island couldn’t even attract the visitors it needed to pay the bills, and the park went bankrupt in its first season.
A change in ownership and pricing policy helped make the park a profitable venture, McLaughlin explained. Over the years, Pleasure Island has hosted notable artists such as the Three Stooges, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
In the amusement park’s Old West-themed area, actors staged simulated gunfights and train robberies. “Clipper Cove,” a recreation of a New England fishing village, was the home of the “Moby Dick“Attraction featuring an animatronic whale emerging from a pond and spewing water.
“You’re going to hear a lot of excitement about whether the whale is still in the water,” McLaughlin said. “It’s still; It’s still there.”
Last year, YouTuber sparkiegames visited the site — now an office park — and traveled to the pond to confirm that the whale remains in its water grave.
Why was Pleasure Island closed?
After several years and several ownership changes, the park suffered from underinvestment and declining foot traffic, McLaughlin explained. Last season, Pleasure Island is a “ghost of the park that opened in 1959,” he said.
In McLaughlin’s view, part of the failure of Pleasure Island can be traced to a radical shift in the 1960s, as America transitioned from the idyllic “Leave It to Beaver” ideals to the countercultural revelations of Woodstock.
The tame Moby Dick ride just wasn’t enough anymore; Kids wanted roller coasters.
“But the main reason [that Pleasure Island closed] “The land became more valuable than the company itself,” McLaughlin said. “If there is an end result, then that is the end result.”
What about those highway signs?
According to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Pleasure Island Road signs have been on I-95/128 since the 1960s, when Pleasure Island Road ran from Salem Street to the park entrance.
Wakefield renamed most of the road after the park’s closure, and Pleasure Island Road is now just a short distance inside the interchange. Like its namesake, however, the street left a lasting impression – that even exists a song that shares his name.
According to the department, the new freeway signs near exit 60 were recently installed as part of a MassDOT project to replace and update wayfinding and traffic signs in the area.
MassDOT retained Pleasure Island Road on these signs “both in recognition of the importance of the Pleasure Island name to the area and because it is a well-known street name for traffic passing through the Salem Street interchange,” a spokesman told Boston .com
These highway signs are a recognition that half a century later, many North Shore locals still yearn for Pleasure Island.
“It was just a different time, a different era, a different space,” McLaughlin said. “So a lot of people are really reaching for those memories.”
Subscribe to Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest news from Boston.com