Wakefield author Bob McLaughlin publishes history of ‘Magic Mountain’

07May16

By MARK SARDELLA

It all started when he purchased nine Pleasure Island postcards at a local church antiques show.

magic_mountain_coverSince then, Wakefield’s Robert McLaughlin has written five books and turned himself into one of the country’s leading experts on American theme parks. His latest book, Magic Mountain was published last week and tells the story of the park of the same name that was once nestled in the hills of Golden, Colorado, just outside of Denver.

Magic Mountain was the first of three knockoff theme parks designed by Disney deserter C.V. Wood and his firm, Marco Engineering. The other two were Pleasure Island in Wakefield and Freedomland in New York City.

For McLaughlin, what started out as research on Wakefield’s Pleasure Island expanded into researching its sister parks in Denver and New York.

“Amusement parks have been part of America’s culture for a very long time,” McLaughlin says. It started with the so called “trolley parks” of the early 20th century that included carousels, boat rides and other entertainment. By mid-century, McLaughlin explains, the idea of theme parks emerged.

“With the Great Depression and World War II in the rearview mirror, America was on a roll,” McLaughlin says. “With a bumper crop of baby boomers and measurable disposable income, the 1950s were the ideal time for a new type of family entertainment.”

Enter Disneyland, which opened its gates on July 17, 1955.

For reasons that remain unclear, McLaughlin explains, just months after Disneyland opened, Disney and C.V. Wood parted ways. Now armed with the Disney playbook, Wood began designing rival theme parks for investors all too willing to get in on this exciting new business.

pleasure_island_entrance2“Magic Mountain has the distinction of being the very first theme park to be designed and built in the entire country after Disneyland,” McLaughlin explains. Pleasure Island in Wakefield was the second. The third was Freedomland.

“Going to Disneyland was out of reach for most families,” McLaughlin notes. But thanks to parks like Magic Mountain, Pleasure Island and Freedomland, he says, “millions of kids and their families got to experience their very first Disneyland-type park.”

According to McLaughlin, Magic Mountain was conceived by a plumbing contractor named Walter F. Cobb as a storybook-type park. Cobb commissioned Wood and the team of designers he had pirated away from Disney to design Magic Mountain.

heritage_squareConstruction of Magic Mountain began in 1957. The park opened on a limited basis in 1959 followed by its premier full season in 1960. Plagued with financial problems, the park lasted just that one year and lay idle until it was rebranded as “Heritage Square” in 1971.

“For over 40 years, Heritage Square brought fun and entertainment to the young and young at heart,” McLaughlin says. Heritage Square closed its gates for the last lime in November 2015.

For those who remember Pleasure Island in Wakefield, you’ll find much that looks familiar as you thumb through the 160 mostly color images in “Magic Mountain.” (After all, both parks were designed by the same people.)

The railroad trestle for Magic Mountain’s train ride looks identical to the one at Pleasure Island. Magic Mountain’s tilt house was called the “Magnetic House.” At Pleasure Island it was called “the Strange Shanty” and in Freedomland it was known as “La Casa Loca (Crazy House).”

Like Pleasure Island, Magic Mountain featured a burro ride. Pleasure Island’s Jenney Car ride where kids could drive on a controlled track was known as the “Road Racer” track at Magic Mountain.

Like Pleasure Island, Magic Mountain employed a stable of actors who would re-enact western-style gun fights on the streets of the park.

“How exciting it must have been,” McLaughlin says, “to have been a child at the height of the cowboy and western era on television and movies to experience real-time gunfights and stagecoach and train rides.”

bob_peteMcLaughlin took ten trips out to the Golden/Denver area to interview people and do research for “Magic Mountain.” He is donating a copy of the book to each school in Golden.

He will be traveling out to Colorado again this month for a series of book-signings, TV and radio appearances to promote the book.

“Magic Mountain” is published by Arcadia as part of its Images of Modern America series. It can be purchased at book stores like Barnes & Noble or online from Amazon.com.

McLaughlin’s previous books published by Arcadia are: Pleasure Island, Freedomland, Pleasure Island 1959-1969 and “Freedomland 1960-1964.”

You can find much more information on Magic Mountain and all of McLaughlin’s books on his web site: friendsofpleasureisland.org/.

[This story originally appeared in the May 5, 2016 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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