According to the lyrics of Frank Loesser’s classic song “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, the “jackpot question” we’re all asking ourselves this season is just what we’re planning to do on New Year’s Eve.
Some of us will be snuggled at home waiting for the world-famous ball to drop in New York City’s Times Square, while others might be mingling out in the cold night air to watch it drop in person. Some will be at a party with friends and family, some will be visiting a tropical beach somewhere, and others, of course, will be taking part in the festivities at the Disney Parks.
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One place you’re not going to be spending New Year’s Eve this year, though, is Walt Disney World’s former late-night adult playground, Pleasure Island. However, had you been at Pleasure Island in the 90s (or early 200os), you could celebrate the New Year not just on December 31, but every night of the year!
For a time, Pleasure Island’s nightly New Year’s Eve celebration was the hallmark of the club/bar district, and just what this daily celebration entailed is an interesting part of Walt Disney World history to review here at year’s end.
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The History of Pleasure Island
As part of the “Disney Decade,” Michael Eisner was determined in the 1990s to turn Walt Disney World into an all-encompassing resort experience where Guests never felt the need to leave property during their visit. This was especially the case regarding nearby rival Universal Studios, but Eisner also took aim at other local attractions that would draw in Disney visitors and decided to expand the resort’s offerings beyond just roller coasters, the Magic Kingdom, and so forth.
One such popular destination was Church Street Station, a historic train depot in Orlando that became a retail, restaurant, and entertainment center in the 1970s as the city developed into a major tourism destination. Since Church Street Station pulled in Disney Guests who were looking for a bit of nightlife – especially of the alcohol-infused kind – Eisner and his team saw an opportunity to fill that need on Walt Disney World property.
Thus Pleasure Island was born as a unique locale within the larger Downtown Disney shopping/dining/entertainment district. Named after the land of excess and bacchanalia from Pinocchio (and ignoring the fact that in the film Pleasure Island is viewed as a wicked temptation to avoid), the assemblage of bars, dancehalls and nightclubs opened in 1989 and, at night, was only open to adults.
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The Story of Pleasure Island
As with all things Disney, the creative minds at Walt Disney Imagineering developed a backstory for the Pleasure Island nighttime district that was intricate and detailed in ways that the average Guest would never know. In fact, to get the full story an interested Guest would have to read twenty-six plaques placed at the entrances to the island and on individual buildings throughout!
According to Disney historian Jim Korkis in the book Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World: The World that Disappeared,
Walt Disney Imagineering created the back story of a Pittsburgh entrepreneur named Merriweather Adam Pleasure who arrived with his family on a Mississippi side-wheeler that steamed into Lake Buena Vista in 1911.
He envisioned a manufacturing center, research lab and development facility, as well as a social gathering spot for the famous and well-to-do. When Pleasure and his daughter disappeared on a voyage in 1941, the island fell on hard times with Hurricane Connie in 1955 inflicting near-total destruction.
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 Adventurers Club that had survived disaster, were reopened.
This was a long way to go just to explain an entertainment district meant to appeal to younger adults, but it shows how dedicated to their craft the Imagineers are. Layered on top of this story of repurposing existing facilities, though, was another element unifying the disparate bars and clubs of Pleasure Island – a nightly New Year’s Eve celebration.
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New Year’s Eve on Pleasure Island
To pull in nightly visitors and increase attendance from both visitors and Orlando locals, Disney knew that Pleasure Island needed a hook beyond just the bars and clubs themselves. After discarding an early concept for a nightly Christmas celebration inspired by the landing of a spaceship, the Imagineers hit upon the idea of counting down to New Year’s Eve every night, sometimes at 11 p.m. on weeknights!
The reasoning behind this nightly New Year’s Eve required an update to the backstory. Merriweather Pleasure, it seems, had been born on New Year’s Eve, as had his two eldest children. He even first paddled onto Lake Buena Vista on New Year’s Eve! But in 1912 his daughter Miriam was born in February, breaking the tradition. As Jim Korkis explains,
[T]he only way to correct this chronological indiscretion was to correct time itself.
Pleasure said that since it was his island, he could say it was any day he wanted it to be. He claimed that the birth of Miriam on a date so far out of Pleasure family tradition was clearly a sign that every day should be New Year’s Eve on Pleasure Island.
This, of course, meant that every night there was a New Year’s Eve party on Pleasure Island. At the end of each work day, every day of the year, the laborers, artisans, investors, and globe-trotting millionaire visitors alike, would dance in the streets as the entire Island community kicked back with wild abandon. The buildings that provided industrial functions during the daytime were reset to be dancehalls, concert or theatrical venues, or locations for dining or refreshments. Every night there was a fireworks display, choreographed by Pleasure himself.
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The level of storytelling required to justify what was in many ways a marketing ploy once again shows how dedicated the Imagineers are to their craft. But with this backstory in place, all parties at Disney – designers, operators, marketers, and executives alike – were ready to create a nightly party at Pleasure Island that created a bit of adult fun in the midst of the family-focused resort.
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So though you may not be able to celebrate New Year’s Eve at Pleasure Island this year, you can still think fondly on Merriweather Pleasure and his nightly attempt to usher in a new day/year with whimsy, elan, and Disney magic.