As many of you know, I am fascinated with theme parks that are no longer with us. There are so many interesting stories, so many lessons to be learned and dozens of hard to believe facts that go along with every one of these parks that are no longer with us. One of these closed gems is chronicled brilliantly in the new book recently released by Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore called “Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier.”
Pacific Ocean Park (or POP as it was often referred to) opened in Santa Monica, California in 1958, along one of the piers near Venice Beach. The 28-acre park was designed to compete with Disneyland and even eclipsed the mouse’s attendance on the second day of operation. POP’s theming was this strange and wonderful eclectic mix of nautical attractions combined with what was considered “space age” architecture at the time.
While the park had its fair share of carnival rides (all themed around the ocean), like the Sea Serpent which was a wooden roller coaster re-themed to POP and originally opened in 1926. The Flying Fish was the first wild mouse roller coaster in the United States and debuted at the park as well. In addition, POP featured the Sea Circus, a sea lion and dolphin show that sat 2,000 guests per show.
Personally, what’s most fascinating is Pacific Ocean Park’s dark rides. Great expense was taken in creating these unique experiences that are sadly long gone. Flight to Mars was their direct answer to Disneyland’s Flight to the Moon, even though it had nothing to do with the nautical theme. Guests sat in chairs in a circular theater complete with television monitors so they could look out “the window” of the rocket ship they were riding in.
By far, the most popular attraction at POP was the Mystery Island Banana Train. A Polynesian longhouse served as one of the park’s “weenies” as it sat over a man-made waterfall that guests had enter via a suspended bridge in order to board the ride.
The ride featured a charming open air Banana Boat train, covered in bamboo, had a unique push engine rather than a traditional pull like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
The trains were actually driven by live operators giving a live spiel complete with its own set of corny jokes. Guests were put face-to-face with coconut throwing monkeys, a lava spewing volcano and even perilous indoor cave scenes featuring bats, spiders and special effects like lighting and wind.
Mystery Island even featured a section of track that went directly over the ocean below, combining the best of indoor and outdoor scenery.
Ultimately, the ocean was POP’s greatest draw and worst enemy. While the California tides provided the perfect place for people to flock, the salty sea water was hell on the park’s attractions that needed constant maintenance and upkeep. In addition, in 1965, the city of Santa Monica started its Ocean Park urban renewal project where many streets leading to POP were closed, making it hard for tourists to even get to the park. In 1967, the city essentially seized the property due to back taxes and rent owed.
For years afterwards, the buildings became a place where people would hide out, and was the subject of several arsonists with way too much free time. Even daredevil surfers loved to ride the waves near the park’s old pier structure still stuck out in the water like daggers, potentially killing people in the process.
To read more about this fascinating piece of theme park history, you have to pick up a copy of “Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier” for yourself. It’s currently on sale at Amazon for $27.58 and is a steal for a 260+ page hard cover book loaded with hundreds of pictures of a park we will never see again. This was the best theme park book purchase I have made in a very, very long time. Also, if you purchase via the Amazon links on the page, Theme Park University gets an itsy bitsy piece of a referral and it costs you nothing extra.