Duplicating Disneyland is harder than you think: The CV Wood parks
Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood Jr. is the singular definition of an enigma. Few Disney fans have ever heard the name. The ones who have, have read anything from genius, showman, shuckster, to con man. The self-confident kid who got into college on a rope twirling scholarship was pure Texas and a born leader. His friends were known as the Bombers, and they remained loyal to the very end. Woody, as he was called, could talk anybody into anything. Could sell anything. Had the chutzpah to will anything into existence if he wanted it. And his Texan drawl was so charming you’d never know what hit you. First meeting the Disney brothers as one of the team at Stanford Research Institute, his no-nonsense, easy-going, confident manner was so impressive he was quickly hired to oversee completion of Disneyland on a tight budget.
So opens the third chapter of Imagineering an American Dreamscape. CV Wood was the bridge between Disneyland and entrepreneurs around the country who wanted to cash in on its success. There were only two people on earth who knew how to build this newfangled thing becoming known as a theme park. Walt wasn’t interested, but CV, who found himself unemployed seven months after getting the park open—on time—was ready to jump in. He started his own company, Marco Engineering, hired a few artists from Disney and the film industry, and peddled his services as the “master planner and builder of Disneyland.”
He managed to help get three parks built—well, sort of—and started a fourth: Magic Mountain in Colorado, Pleasure Island in Wakefield, MA, and Freedomland in the Bronx. Angus Wynne hired him to build Six Flags Over Texas, but at some point the clash of two strong-willed individuals got to be too much, so Angus sent him packing. That’s another story to tell.
Magic Mountain was the first attempt, but for reasons beyond CV’s control it never really made it to the starting line. Financial issues plagued the project, and at some point a senior executive skipped the state with what they had left. They opened the park early during construction in an attempt to bring in revenue. The train opened a year later, offering a grand tour of the construction site. Most of their plans were never realized; the front section that was completed later served as the hub of an amusement park that lasted for many years.
Pleasure Island derived from an early concept for Child Life World, a storybook and fantasy world based on Bill Hawkes’ Child Life magazine. Featuring many concepts “borrowed” from Disneyland, the 168 acres was transformed into Main Street, Clipper Cove, Western City, and Hood’s Farm. There were dark rides, a pirate island, and The Moby Dick Hunt, where your Jungle Cruise progeny led you on a nautical quest for the great whale. Pleasure Island would survive for over a decade, but was undercapitalized (a recurring theme in this industry), underwent various transfers of ownership (yet another too-often circumstance), suffered a decline in maintenance, and eventually just went away.
More folks have heard of Freedomland, the largest “Disneyland East” of them all. Designed as a tribute to the United States, and physically laid out to resemble a map of the country, it started off with a bang. But the unending layers of ownership and corporate fingers were so tangled, so complex, and so expensive, it had no chance whatsoever of surviving. After five seasons, what was left of the park was transformed into the largest urban housing project ever built.
Chapter three of the book tells the story of these three parks, but for a visual history with lots of photos, check out Bob McLaughlin’s Images of America books. Bob is probably the expert on the CV Wood parks and was very helpful and encouraging to me when putting my book together. He lives in Wakefield and heads up a group called Friends of Pleasure Island, offering tours and memories of that little-known piece of theme park history.
PI and Freedomland ads are from Bob McLaughlin’s vast resources, the MM concept art is from the Gardner Family Collection, and the Freedomland scans are from the park’s opening year guidebook (my collection).