In 1911, a Paddle Steamer was travelling through Lake Buena Vista in Florida when it stumbled upon a preserved island home to a couple of alligators and a family of herons. The Paddle Steamer belonged to none other than Merriweather Pleasure, an explorer of the seas who had set out for the unknown with his family. Merriwether Pleasure was an explorer, an inventor and a collector. The Pleasure family arrived with a great plan to establish Pleasure Canvas and Sailmaking Ltd, and upon arrival, the overgrown island became a flurry of construction and within a year the Florida wilderness was no more, it had been overtaken by a sailmaking factory. Before too long the factory was joined by a Powerplant, A Brass Foundry, town centre and more! In 1920 the long-suffering wife of Merriweather, Isabella gave her husband the ultimatum. Find a new location to house his ever-growing collection of oddities or she would do it for him. So Merriweather Pleasure opened a new library on the island, a library that would become a social club for all his globetrotting pals, a secret social place for Explorers and Adventurers, a headquarters for “The Adventurers Club”. This was until 1955 when Hurricane Connie struck the island, closing off the rusting remains of this island to the outside world and it seemed this island of pleasure and it’s Adventurers club would be lost forever…
At least that’s the story Disney told when creating one of it’s most loved and missed experiences of all time, a club, a restaurant, an attraction, a bar, a show, and an improvisation theatre and more amalgamated into one. The Adventurers Club was something original and unique for Disney, a venue where you weren’t just an observer but where you directly became part of the show, story and experience. For ReviewTyme I’m Luke Carroll and this is the history of The Adventurers Club on Pleasure Island!
Before we look at the Adventurers Club itself, let’s take a quick look at what was happening within Disney at the time and the history of Pleasure Island itself. The 1980s at Disney, under the direction of Michael Eisner, saw lots of ideas “borrowed” from other Entertainment ventures around America. Pleasure Island was no different, taking its inspiration from Church Street in Downtown Orlando which saw an old abandoned railway station transformed into an Entertainment hotspot filled with nightclubs charging a single price to hop between any of its club in one night. Eisner saw this as a great option to bring into Walt Disney World to help the struggling Walt Disney World Shopping Village. Nightclubs would also help Eisner fulfil his goal of making Disney a hip, trendy place that appealed to the teenage demographic as well. So in 1986, a group of Imagineers found themselves conveniently stumbling across the overgrown remains of Merriweather Pleasure’s island conveniently just steps away from their Shopping Village!
Imagineers designed Pleasure Island to feel like a real historical world that had been built over the course of decades, each corner of the island was designed to further the story of Merriwether Pleasure and his families use of the island. A ticket to Pleasure Island was more than just an entry to bars, restaurants and clubs, you became part of the story of the Pleasure Family and the journey that led them to this island. You walked past their Mansion (Now home to the Portobello Yacht Club) the Paddlewheeler that brought them to the island is now home to Fulton’s Crab Shack, the Power Plant is now the Comedy Warehouse, the island may have looked over a hundred years old and that was the point. This was the beginning of the era when repurposing old buildings into new hip venues was all the rage, a trend that still continues to this day. But amongst this immersive world was one venue that hosted something very different from the rest, The Adventures Club.
The founding of the club follows back to two well-known Imagineers. Chris Carradine, the Vice President of WDI at the time came up with the idea and sketched it out on cocktail napkins one evening, Chris proclaimed that the club would have “twice as many rooms as guests will ever see” expressing the detail and backstory the place would contain. The other leading figure was Joe Rohde, known for his attention to detail in projects such as Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the inspiration for the club’s atmosphere came from an annual party he would host entitled “The Last Days of the Raj” where Rohde and his friends would dress in British colonial attire. It was said to have “Come out of our collective, shared love of the pith helmet. It was the place we always wanted to go but didn’t exist”. And so the Adventurer’s Club was born going from a drawing on a cocktail napkin to one of the most beloved experiences to ever grace Walt Disney World.
Approaching the Adventurer’s Club you would notice how different it looks from the rest of Pleasure Island, the building emits a sense of mystery itself with climbing vines working their way up a giant Obelisk pointing towards the sky. The walls of the building are beginning to chip away leaving behind ancient runes in a language we are yet to understand. Luckily for us, tonight the Adventurers Club is hosting an open house for New Years Eve 1937 (As it is Tonight and every night). A banner greets you as you enter proclaiming “Come in a stranger, leave a little stranger.”
Upon entering the club you step foot into the Zebra Mezzanine where you are greeted by Graves, the Clubs lifelong butler, welcoming you back to the club. Luckily while you were out exploring he took care of your mail for you. On a platter, Graves would hand you a letter, a souvenir envelope containing comedic letters that would set the tone for the night to come. With your letter in hand, you step into the clubs grandiose entrance The Mezzanine, giving you an amazing overhead view of the clubs Main Salon. Looking around you notice the amazing detail that the club has, the walls are filled with flags, photos and oddities and standing in the centre of the room is a famous Bronze Sculpture of Zeus though, lovingly, his lightning bolt has been replaced by a fishing rod. Walking down the steps into the Salon you find the clubs main bar, here you can meander around talking to some of the club’s most noteworthy members. And this is where the true beauty of the Adventurers Club is, all throughout the club characters mill about each with their own lives and backstories they are happy to explain. Every character is played by an incredibly talented improviser, imagine the Citizens of Hollywood from Hollywood Studios with an even grander backstory they are happy to tell you.
To begin your night you gather in the Main Salon to pledge your allegiance to the club and recite the club creed as established by founder Merriweather Pleasure himself. The recitation finishes with the Club’s official greeting “Kungaloosh!” and the awakening of the Clubs official Gleemeister Colonel Critchlow Sunchbech, usually found asleep above the Salon but easily awoken with his favourite phrase “Free Drink Colonel!” luckily this would quickly get his attention and would lead the club in drinking songs. The club is full of theatrical secrets like the Colonel, a puppet brought to life by an improviser behind the wall.
Other rooms to explore throughout the club included the Mask Room, a small room decorated in dozens of masks from around the world, many of which will move, laugh and even awaken to perform improv routines often making jokes at the expense of people sitting in the room. The Treasure Room was another small side room that would host lectures throughout the evening often including the Genie Beezle another ingeniously designed character who appeared as a floating head giving a comedic back-and-forth with the lecturer.
The largest room in the club though was the Library, not just a resource of books full of adventurous stories but also home to the club’s main stage. Throughout the night the library would come alive with various shows, musical numbers and special events. There was the welcoming party, cabarets, sing-alongs and more, including one of the most memorable events of the club, a nightly Radio Broadcast of the serial radio show “Tales of the Adventurers Club” unfortunately in the classic themed entertainment style, half the cast had gone missing and required replacement actors to be found in the audience. Another fan-favourite of the Library room was a variety show where members of the Club attempted to raise $2,000 to pay for the club’s lease (On the last night of operation the club for the first time in history failed to raise the required funds).
Your night at the Adventurer’s Club wraps up with the ringing in of the brand new year of 1938 when the Club moving outside at 11:45 pm to watch the celebratory fireworks finale and that wraps up your night and experience at one of the most unique places Disney Imagineers have ever dreamed up, every square in of the club was part of a living, fully immersive themed environment. If you came back to the club you would always find familiar and new faces to invest in the stories of. The club was a community, a group of explorers who welcomed and provided refuge to any Pleasure Island visitors, but nothing lasts forever and the Adventurers Club and the rest of Pleasure Island no longer fitted into the plans Disney had for the next update to their Mega-Shopping and Dining Destination. On the 27th of September 2008 the last public opening of the Club was held to overflowing crowds and as the final songs, laughs and fireworks were held the adventurers club was no more.
In 2010, after 2 years of uncertainty, it was announced that they finally had a plan for the closed Pleasure Island. Disney announced that “A nostalgic yet modern take on an early 20th-century port city and amusement pier will evolve Pleasure Island into Hyperion Wharf. By day, the bustling port district will draw guests in with its stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants and by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland.” Though ultimately Hyperion Wharf never happened. Most of Downtown Disney’s clubs were demolished in 2011 in preparation for Hyperion Wharf but that was it, Pleasure Island remained as a maze-like walkway of construction walls and nothing more. Disney had realised that to remain relevant they needed much more than a simple rename and retheme of Pleasure Island’s long-abandoned warehouses.
In 2013 Disney announced their newly changed plans to turn the entirety of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs an upscale dining, shopping and entertainment area. The space previously home to Pleasure Island would become “The Landing” which would see the demolition of most of the Pleasure Island “Warehouses” which removed any fading hope that the Adventurer’s Club would return, the performers had bowed their last bow, the audience had laughed their last laugh and everyone had hollered their last Kungaloosh!
Great ideas in themed entertainment always live on, and Imagineers have used what they learnt from the Adventurers Club all over the world. Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar is one of the best examples of Disney capturing the detail and appeal of the Club, filled with mini-shows and events that make the club feel alive. Most Disney fans will agree that the Adventurers Club formed the basis of one of the greatest tales ever told by Imagineering. The Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A), though that is a story for another time.
For a lot of Disney fans the defunct attractions they wished they could have experienced most include things like Horizons, Journey into Imagination and ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter but for me, if I could have experienced anything first hand it would have to have been the Adventurers Club on Pleasure Island.
Marching along we’re adventurers, Singing the song of adventurers, Up or down North, south, east, or west, An Adventurer’s life is best.