10 photos from L.A.'s long-gone Pacific Ocean Park, a day out by the sea you'll never enjoy

By Chris Merritt at 9:27 pm Mon, May 5, 2014

Pacific Ocean Park--or as it was commonly known in Los Angeles from the '50s through the '70s, P.O.P.--was extraordinary in both its glamorous rise and spectacular fall. As a family-oriented attraction in the '50s with modernist-styled rides designed by Hollywood's best, P.O.P.'s attendance briefly surpassed that of Disneyland.

Domenic Priore and I uncovered hundreds of images, most unseen elsewhere, including original ride designs, illustrations, and photos of the Tiki-rich, space age, and nautical rides. P.O.P. was often widely seen in movies and television shows throughout the '60s. Its Cheetah auditorium hosted important early rock shows, including those by Ritchie Valens, The Doors, and Pink Floyd.

Following are 10 of the best pictures, showcasing one of the mid-century park's most amazing attractions: Mystery Isle, complete with the exciting Banana Train. Hopefully this will whet your appetite for a book about the park, Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles' Space Age Nautical Pleasure Pier, by myself and Domenic, with design by Sean Tejaratchi and a foreword by Brian Wilson.

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The entryway to Mystic Isles was flanked by Polynesian-themed totem poles, thatched huts and bamboo--the result being an "immersion into a land of escapism". Buccaneer's Den (formerly the Egyptian Ballroom) radiates turquise in the background.

After queuing, riders would board a unique conveyance: the charming miniature Banana Train. The cab and engine were located in the rear, pushing, rather than pulling the open-air, bamboo-clad cars. The drivers of the trains delivered a live spiel, describing the sights while telling pithy jokes along the way. Leaving the longhouse, guests would spy a miniature, thatched hut, home to a live parrot. Passing under another grass-roofed structure, a menacing cannibal glared down at from above, after which visitors would pass through the native's village, where the driver would joke that they would later be invited to dinner.

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Mr. Dolphin (later given the name Mahi-Mahi) was a simple oceanic redressing of the existing "Strat-O-Liner", yet it continued to give the sensation of flying over the water once it got going.

The train would veer to the left as a troupe of coconut-throwing monkeys menaced it, then slowly climb up a lift leading into the dark of the mountain as "carnivorous" vultures threatened riders on the edge of the cliff. Inside the dark cavers, guests would encouter a mine with glittering gems, which were guarded by giant, glowing spiders and bats.

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Dave Constable's concept art for the facade of the Deepest Deep made good use of the rockwork in an attempt to hide the simple Quonset show building.

The little train would emerge outside again, this time into the crater at the center of a volcano. Bright red "lava" flowed around the track, and a geyser in the center would occasionally spew water at startled passengers. Employee John Ryan recalled, "At night the volcanoes showed up well as the red 'embers' were lit from below, which would contrast dramatically with the evening darkness. You could even see the lights of Santa Monica and Malibu from the outdoor section..."

4The culmination of a visit to Pacific Ocean Park was likely the first view of Mystery Island at the end of the pier.

The train would head back into the heart of the mountain, where more volcanic geysers lay in wait, followed by an earthquake--with a disorienting, rotating tunnel. Escaping this, the ride continued over a truly scary trestle, suspended over the ocean below, into the final scene, an indoor tropical thunderstorm, replete with lightning and strong gusts of wind. Exiting into the sunlight again, the farewell touch was the "Goony Bird"--sitting on a clutch of cartoonish, oversized eggs--who chirped, "Thank you for riding with us!"

The Mystery Island Banana Train was P.O.P.'s knockout punch--a true escape from the urban environment of Los Angeles.

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Early Newman's 1961 silkscreen showcasing "Mystic Isles."

The Mystery Island Banana Train concession at P.O.P. was jointly owned and operated by CV Wood and Earl Sheldon, with financial assistance from Robert McCulloch. Wood was best known for his work on the development of Disneyland, and in 1956 had done some financial studies for the Turf Club during the development of P.O.P. Operators of the attraction had to take great care while driving the trains. John Ryan, who worked the attraction, remembered, "The first portion of the ride was to drive the train up a small hill, and from there it ran like a coaster with the train operator (my job) applying brakes at strategic locations so it didn't go too fast and run off the track. Never happened on my watch, but there were continuous reminders to make sure it didn't..." Sculptor Jim Casey not only carved the wooden tikis found in and around the attraction, but also created the scale model for Constable, as well as the coconut-throwing monkeys (modeled after the Chimpanzee "Dink"), carnivorous vultures and the "Goony Bird" found at the end of the ride.

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A towheaded boy stares in wonder at the Banana Train. Manufactured by Arrow Development, it pushed rather than pulled the guests through the unique attraction.

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Riders look up with riotous laughter at a cannibal menacing them from his hut above.

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The approach to the Mystery Island Banana Train.

Construction on the Banana Train was nicknamed the "Carpenter's Nightmare" by the contractors--building it was a confusing jigsaw puzzle consisting of 750,000 board--feet of lumber, all covered with a plaster-of-Paris finish to simulate rockwork. Conveyance experts Arrow Development were hired to build the six electrically powered locomotives, with the unique addition of steerable wheels to navigate corners.

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The Mystery Island Banana Train ride itself was a long, thrilling attraction through a jungle environment that fully embraced suspension of disbelief. To begin the adventure, guests had to traverse a tiki-flanked suspended bridge over a waterfall pumping seawater up from the ocean below. The substantial pumps were capable of lifting 9000 gallons of water a minute--even though they occasionally would get backed up with seaweed and other detritus.

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Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles' Space Age Nautical Pleasure Pier, by Chris Merritt and Domenic Priore, is available now from Amazon and all good bookstores.

Published 9:27 pm Mon, May 5, 2014

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