Pleasure Island: 1959-1969


New book on legendary Wakefield, Massachusetts Amusement Park

Pleasure Island 1959-1969“It’s been highly rewarding,” says local author Bob McLaughlin of writing his second book on famed local amusement park, Pleasure Island, published this month by Arcadia. The best part, according to the affable Water Street resident, was getting “to meet a lot of people I never would have met.”

Indeed, over the years McLaughlin has crisscrossed the country at his own expense conducting interviews and doing research for his two books on Pleasure Island plus another on New York’s Freedomland amusement park.

“Pleasure Island: 1959–1969,” is an all new, full-color photographic history of legendary theme park located off Audubon Road in Wakefield MA, where the Edgewater Office Park now sits.

This is far from a rehash of McLaughlin’s first book, “Pleasure Island,” published in pleasure_island_entrance22009. Not only are almost all of the photographs new, all but about 16 of the new book’s 160 photos are in color.

Until recently, all of the books in Arcadia’s popular “Images of America” pictorial series were published in black and white. According to McLaughlin, “Pleasure Island: 1959–1969” is only the 10th book published in Arcadia’s new “Images of Modern America” full color series. It is the first book about New England put out in color by Arcadia.

McLaughlin is also excited about the quality of the color images in the new book. “We did all the scans ourselves,” the author says, taking control over the quality of the images rather than turning them over to the publisher for scanning. This allowed for many of the images to be cleaned up and enhanced. “They’re better than the day they were shot,” McLaughlin insists. Many of jenny_cars2the book’s images come courtesy of the family of Bud Bourdon of Bourdon’s Studios, another Wakefield icon, so the images were top quality to begin with.

Color serves a book on Pleasure Island well. Anyone who visited the park during its 11 summers remembers it as a bright and colorful place. McLaughlin devotes a chapter to “Attractions and Entertainment,” discussing the park’s unique blend of outdoor rides from its signature “Moby Dick Hunt” to the “Burro Ride” to the Jenny cars, where many a kid got behind the wheel for the first time.

wreck_hesperusThen there were the so-called dark rides, like the “Chisolm Trail” and the “Wreck of the Hesperus” where you were boarded a track-mounted car and were pulled through a darkened maze of flashing lights and special effects. Those effects may have been primitive by today’s standards, but to kids in the 1960s they were a thrill like nothing they had never experienced unless they’d been lucky enough to go to Disneyland.

McLaughlin also covers the long list of Hollywood, TV and musical stars that Pleasure Island brought to Wakefield.

rex_trailer09It wasn’t just local names like the late Rex Trailer, to whom the book is dedicated, but national legends like Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Chuck Connors, the Three Stooges and Ricky Nelson performed at Pleasure Island’s Show Bowl.

Those interested in how a place like Pleasure Island came to be in Wakefield won’t be disappointed as McLaughlin devotes a portion of the book to the history of the park.

“Disneyland was a brand-new concept for the amusement industry,” McLaughlin writes. “It was only natural others were going to copy the playbook.”

The vision for a family recreation center in the Boston area came from William Hawkes, publisher of Child Life magazine. Cabot, Cabot & Forbes was the Boston-based firm that owned the land off of Route 128. The third main player, according to the book, was C.V. Wood – who had been the first general manager of Disneyland.

pleasure_island_mapThe site consisted of 168 acres, much of it swamp. “Just months before opening day Pleasure Island was mostly swampland,” McLaughlin quotes from a Pleasure Island press release. “Engineers removed and relocated more than 200,000 cubic yards of earth to create its villages, roads and parks.”

By the mid-1960s, Pleasure Island had changed ownership several times, according to the book. Meanwhile, “America’s appetite for larger and faster rides was growing,” McLaughlin writes, “and Pleasure Island, for a variety of reasons, was operating without any major thrill rides.” Unfortunately, McLaughlin says, Pleasure Island’s third set of owners, Boston Ventures, lacked the funds for major re-investment in the park.

“Ultimately, just like drive-in theaters and today’s golf courses, the land became moby_dickmore valuable than the business,” McLaughlin writes. On April 4, 1969, the amusement park whose iconic symbol was Moby Dick was purchased by a company controlled by the ironically named David Dick and his father-in-law Robert Waldman. But Waldman and Dick would soon go prison for mail fraud, and their plans to build eight 12-story apartment buildings on the site went with them. That, according to McLaughlin’s book, “is the reason there is only one apartment building on the former Pleasure Island site.”

Pleasure Island closed for good on Labor Day weekend, 1969, after drawing an estimated 3-4 million visitors over 11 seasons.

pleasure_island_train “Countless employees from Wakefield, the surrounding towns and beyond claim to this day that working at Pleasure Island was the best job they ever had,” writes McLaughlin.

This reporter not only visited the park a number of times as a kid with my family, I was one of those lucky ones who (after lying about my age) got to work at the park in its waning days. I don’t know if it was the best job I ever had, but it was definitely the most fun.

“Pleasure Island 1959-1969″ is available locally at Hart’s Hardware and Smith’s Drug Store. It is also available from online booksellers like, Barnes & Noble and directly from Arcadia Publishing. For dates of upcoming book signings and other Pleasure Island-related events, go to the Friends of Pleasure Island web site.

[This story originally appeared in the July 10, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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