After 19 years of entertainment, late-night Saturday will be the last call for Disney's Pleasure Island nightclub complex. Before the island is lost — to be replaced by outsourced "dining and shopping experiences" — I want to raise my final pricey frozen drink to what was a lifeline for working actors in this town.
Pleasure Island opened on May 1, 1989, as an adult-oriented outgrowth of the mid-'70s- vintage Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (later called Disney Village Marketplace). The initial lineup of clubs included Mannequins Dance Palace, the Adventurer's Club and the Comedy Warehouse, along with extinct venues like the Neon Armadillo country bar and the Fireworks Factory barbecue restaurant. All were tied together with a cleverly cohesive — if mostly ignored — back story about Merriweather Adam Pleasure, an eccentric sail-making magnate (search Wade Sampson's articles on the MousePlanet website for details). With live bands and a nightly New Year's Eve dance and fireworks display (added in 1990), PI developed a loyal following. It was even popular enough to be satirized by the The Simpsons as "Parent's Island," where the suicidal staff must sing "Auld Lang Syne" ad nauseam.
The 1997 debut of the adjacent "West Side" shops and restaurants doomed PI by virtue of location. An admission-required adult street party was out of step with the family-friendly nature of the rest of the newly christened "Downtown Disney" development; the detour around the debauchery took too many steps for little feet. More importantly to Disney's pocketbook, Universal opened its CityWalk nightclub complex in 1999 without any admission required to walk the streets, and Disney felt the pinch.
In 2004 the gates of PI were opened to all, but that policy resulted in hordes of unsupervised teens using it as a free hangout spot (aka "mall syndrome"). The nightly fireworks show was extinguished in 2005 and the West End stage demolished not long after. By 2007 Downtown Disney was in the news with a string of negative publicity, including a dubious "kidnapping," pipe bombs and an allegation of racial profiling after security bounced some Florida State football players for "loitering."
When Disney announced last June that Pleasure Island would close in September with the end of fiscal calendar, Mouse accountants surely celebrated it as overdue. The attraction had long since achieved its unspoken mission: to kill Church Street Station. In the 1970s and '80s Bob Snow's entertainment multiplex was downtown Orlando's undisputed nightlife capital; PI was Mickey's blatant bite at Snow's cheese. Pleasure Island's popularity precipitated Church Street's decline, culminating in a game of corporate hot potato that has seen the historic attraction fumble through hands as slippery as Lou Pearlman's and Cameron Kuhn's. Now, Disney's Magical Express shuttle-bus service keeps guests trapped on the property without rental cars, lessening CityWalk's lure. And today's tourists appear satisfied with more colorful variations on the stores and eateries they might find at their local mall, instead of the distinctive diversions that used to be synonymous with Disney.
I enjoyed PI in its heyday as a tourist in 1992 and 1994, and frequented it as a local starting in 1996. I have fond (if fuzzy) memories of downing drinks while an unknown 14-year-old Jonny Lang played the blues on an outdoor stage. By end of the '90s I let my annual pass lapse, but I couldn't let an old friend fade away without a final goodbye. When I dropped in on a recent Tuesday evening, the dance venues were depressingly deserted, with two lonely dancers revolving on Mannequins' signature turntable dance floor; the namesake décor dummies outnumbered patrons 10 to one. Even the signature drinks were stuck in time, with references to disappeared landmarks like "The Cage." The Comedy Warehouse, on the other hand, hosted a healthy crowd for the late show. The well-worn Theatresports-style comedy games were still surprisingly fresh in the hands of talented improvisers like Philip Nolen and Mary Thompson Hunt. (And if the vintage park memorabilia that dots the walls ends up on eBay, I want the Magic Journeys marquee.)
The place I will miss the most is the Adventurer's Club, whose mobs of mourning fans have forced management to install an overhead video screen to entertain the overflow crowds. Inside it is always the new-member open house of 1937, where you can be inducted into this fractured fraternity of fabulists. Imagineer Joe Rhode and writer-director Chris Oyen crafted a unique interactive experience that still enthralls almost two decades later. The impeccable cast (including Eric Pinder and Jay T. Becker when I attended) essayed absurd rituals and un-Disney—like innuendo without ever betraying the "please kill me" ennui that plagues theme-park performers. Even my companion, an avowed avoider of artificial amusements, was enchanted enough to declare the oddball characters and antique knickknacks worthy of preservation — perhaps in a themed hotel.
With so many locally owned operations struggling, it might be silly to mourn for the Mouse. But this closure will be felt in the arts community outside Disney's borders. PI offered stable employment and Actors' Equity Association union membership to many notable actors. Without those jobs, local theaters may soon face a smaller pool of talent to draw from. Protests and petitions (like the one at savetheadventurersclub.com) are futile at this point, despite the capacity crowds expected as the end approaches. So join me in toasting the performers who kept the party going until the bitter end. Kungalooshfirstname.lastname@example.org