Saturday 26 August 2017

Moby Dick Hunt at Pleasure Island, Wakefield, Massachusetts

Time for a post about old and/or dead theme parks, I remain hopelessly fascinated by them so everyone else must be too, that’s how it works right?

I’m mostly interested in just one old ride at this park but I shall recap the whole story for you. The park in question is Pleasure Island in Wakefield, Massachusetts U.S. which used to be situated where the Edgeware Office Park now stands. At over 80 acres the park was designed by C. V. Wood’s Marco Engineering company: a key figure in acquiring the land for and designing Disneyland C. V. Wood had left and set up Marco Engineering specifically to create knock-off Disneylands (they’d already built the Magic Mountain park in Colorado by this point). The park came out of a concept for ‘Child Life World’ by Bill Hawkes, publisher of Child Life magazine with the intent to educate at is entertained, never a good idea in my mind: every time a park tries to educate it usually ends up being EPCOT: boring then with drunks sleeping in it. Ground was broken in February 1959 and it took four months and between four and four and a half million dollars to build.

The park opened on Monday 22nd June 1959 with Fess Parker and Rita Moreno there (amongst others) to mark the occasion, four years after Disneyland (Fess Parker was there as well, he missed his cue) and with the very bold tag-line ‘Disneyland of the Northeast’. It was very much a cheap but charming Disneyland-lite with a mixture of standard tourist trap attractions, petting zoo animals and some suspiciously similar attractions like: Space Rocket (Mission to Mars), The Old Smokey Line (Disneyland Railroad), Jenney cars (The Autopia), Pepsi-Cola’s Diamond Lil Show (Golden Horseshoe Revue) and Moby Dick Hunt (Jungle River Cruise) – in fact it had pretty much everything Frontierland had back then, not that those things were very original to begin with. The first season bankrupted Hawke’s corporation: 75,000 guests were forecast but around half that turned up so three investors from Boston bought the park and ran it from 1960 to 1969, that grand re-opening had the Three Stooges.  It did have monkeys on Monkey Island though (Disney didn’t have monkeys!) and a fairly interesting sounding dark ride called The Wreck of the Hesperus where riders travelled underwater and were warned off by King Neptune himself as they left, it sounds pretty similar to Submarine Voyage which was being developed at the time (it actually opened after Pleasure Island) and given how many other elements of the park were inspired by Disney I wouldn’t doubt that there’s a connection. Unless you come from Wakefield or were a kid in the nearby area (or with family nearby) between 1959 and 1969 the park seems relatively uninteresting - except for the aforementioned Hunt Moby Dick ride, which you may have noticed is the tile of this post.

From what I can piece together from various sites, pictures, videos, the great little book Pictures of America: Pleasure Island and the awesome cine camera footage that these gifs are mostly from, Moby Dick Hunt was a boat ride around a man-mad lagoon that could only have been more based on the Jungle River Cruise if It has been called Tropical Amazon Sailing. Riders boarded six authentic 30 foot long whaling boats from the area of the park called Clipper Cove which was based on a New England town, New England has a history with whale fishing and this park was supposed to be educational remember? Positioned around the edge of the lagoon and on a man-made island were were models both animatronic and not, an animatronic-ish rhino would charge at the boats, employees would then manually steer the boats (no tracks) up the lagoon giving as spiel; up and around past the cannibals and their village: models of the 1950s idea of ‘savage natives’ and then down towards the monster you were looking for, plastic dolphins jumping through water as you went.

The Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick had been released in 1956, three years before Pleasure Island opened and around two before design work for it began – looking for something contemporary to tie into, Marco Engineering found a perfect choice with the big white whale: it was public domain, easily recognisable, fit with the education and culture theme and it had been in a hit movie within very recent memory AND it would be a very impressive showpiece. It was. What the 30-odd riders would see after they came down from the cannibal camp was a 70ft long, 3 tonne animatronic Moby Dick rising out of the water as if on cue:

That’s Moby Dick. Special effects maestro Glen Robinson (Earthquake, Logan’s Run, the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong) built Moby Dick (and some of the effects for the Pleasure Island dark rides) in Los Angeles. Moby was disassembled, shipped to Pleasure Island and then assembled and installed in his spot. It ran on a giant piece of track on the bottom of the lagoon and could be wheeled in and out of the water for maintenance, which it apparently needed fairly often. Much like when filming Jaws years later the animatronic worked fine – until it got into the water, it was too buoyant at the start: they put it in the water and it floated right off the tracks, Moby wouldn’t work again until July 5th, two weeks after the park opened and would be a maintenance headache from then on, compounded by the fact that unlike Disneyland’s waterways the lake Moby sat in couldn’t be drained. Perhaps the most obvious issue but also the easiest to overlook was that Moby Dick is a white whale, a white whale in a dirty pond exposed to the elements, he took a lot of cleaning and gifs here alone show that without constant love he could end up looking like someone took a tommy gun to a cruise liner – if cruiser liners could bleed. This just makes me wish I could have rode it even more - I fucking delight in riding old, run-down rides that haven’t been refurbished since god knows when, it’s as close as you can get to being I a derelict theme park that still works. I’ve gone into this once I think but I’m fascinated by derelict building and especially derelict tourist attractions - if I had the money I’d totally be into Urbex/Haikyo – there’s an atmosphere, a sense of what once was, and a delightful mix of creepy of wholesome that really does it for.  Chessington, World of Adventures used to have an old crocks ride called Old Crocks Rally (now Toadies Crazy Cars) a ‘race’ past fibreglass models (it has a barn with some animatronics it), my mum used to like it because it a ride she could go on (she’s not good with rides) I used to like it because it was virtually ignored by maintenance. The figures were unloved, the pond was black, there was leaves all over the dioramas, noses and fingers chipped off, plants growing around where they shouldn’t be, it was even shoved to the side in an unloved part of the park that had some old water features that were full of algae and plants, it was like being in a derelict theme park. So I actually prefer Moby looking like something out of Ghost Ship.  

The effort was worth if it if you ask me, Moby Dick Hunt became the park’s signature attraction and the whale himself was the mascot for the park before it even opened, appearing on the sign to direct visitors to the park, merchandise and elsewhere. So it was worth it from a marketing point view but more so Disney didn’t have anything like Moby Dick and still hasn’t achieved it since, though they’ve had tunnels built to replicate their whale they’ve never produced a full animatronic version of Monstro but C.V. Wood - the forgotten Imagineer, the one Disney don’t like to talk about – achieved this feat in 1959. And what a feat, imagine riding a fairly cheap and mostly uninspiring boat ride, the rhino bit was nice but it’s nowhere near as exciting as it’s billed to be - then a 20 foot moving whale rises out of the water and its blowhole goes off. Now imagine you’re six and its 1961, now you can probably see why I’ve become such a fan of this one long-dead ride. For me Theme park rides (that aren’t ‘coasters obviously) are at their best they allow the rider to experience something they otherwise couldn’t usually be in there and be a part of (so things that you’d only see in films, TV or dreams) and even better when they create a dream-like atmosphere, a dream you can experience while awake, remember clearly and take pictures (or cine camera footage) of. A life-size moving 3D Moby Dick fulfils the first part perfectly and a life-size moving 3D Moby Dick rising out of a jungle themed ride in what is otherwise a fairly obviously American landscape is dreamlike alright, or nightmare-like, apparently a fair few passengers needed new pants after the trip and they weren’t all children. 

Although maintenance issues meant the he didn’t operate continually Moby Dick Hunt was operating from 2 weeks after the park’s grand opening through all 11 seasons until Pleasure Island shut down in 1969. A particularly cold summer caused a dip in attendance and forced the park to switch to only being open at weekends which ultimately proved unfeasible too and the park shut. On April 1st 1971 two fires broke out and burnt down two buildings including the Greenwood railroad depot, an old Greeenwood local landmark that that had been transported to the park. The park stood derelict for a long time after it closed, it was still there in ruins in the mid-1970s and some of the park was looted by locals - apparently someone panelled their basement with wood from the crooked house they had there (The Slanty Shanty). The charging rhino was definitely removed and it seems like the dolphins were not but what became of Moby is a little sketchy. Some eye witness accounts of visiting the derelict park in the 1970s put Moby as having been left on land near where he used to swim but by 1996 eye witness accounts place Moby as having been left under the water and talk like this is just an accepted fact that everyone who worked at the industrial estate knew, apparently you could see him from the roof of 590 Edgewater or from the window of the maintenance department of the Edgeware Office Park – there’s even a funny story from employees about a diver stumbling upon the whale. However it seems by 2001 Moby was gone. Some of his tracks (the ones used to get him in and out of the water) were seen when water levels became very low at the industrial park in 2010, which also revealed a burnt out boat from the Captain Kidd’s Cove area of the theme park and the tracks for the charging rhino but Moby was nowhere to be seen – however Moby’s starting position put around 8ft of water between the whale and the surface so I guess it could still be down there, the water’d have to lower roughly the height of Slender Man to see it after all but it seems unlikely, Moby is most likely dead.

To end on a happier note: Mold-a-Rama. Mold-A-Rama are those make your own souvenir machines that used to litter theme parks, there’s still some in Busch Gardens. Well one mould set you can put in your Mold-a-Rama machine for people to make is their Pilot Whale set - which was made in 1963 for Pleasure Island where it would originally cast plastic whales in white! This mold has been in use all over the shop in various parks but always retains the ‘Pleasure Island’ name on its base and if you ever wondered why your whale from Aquariumland or whatever had the wrong name on it, now you know. i need to find one of these, it doesn’t need to be white, it can be from any location of any age but I need a Pleasure Island Moby Dick figurine.

And there you are, I’ve now told you a lot about an old ride you will never ride in an old park you will never go to, why did I do that and why today? Meh, just felt like it. Thanks for reading about big animatronics and check out The Friends of Pleasure Island if I haven’t drained all interest and enthusiasm for the old park out of you, it’s a pretty comprehensive fan site.


  1. I LOVED READING THIS!! Thank you :)

  2. I wish there could be a way for them to drain the lake so we could see all the tracks, as well as the porpoises.

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  4. I enjoyed reading this period brought back very fond memories I remembergoing to Pleasure Island every summer for my birthday. Hearing the train whistle come through the woods on the Summer nights so comforting, and you knew that cool place was not far . I often wonder what happened to Paul Bunyan that laid on the ground as you walked into the park. I say bring it back! :-) Thank you for the memories, I was 9,10 thinking it was the coolest place on the was!!