By Kimber Fountain, Photographed by Christa Schreckengost
The year is 1906. The citizens of Galveston have survived The Great Storm of 1900, which would endure as the most catastrophic natural disaster in American history. They have built a seventeen foot high seawall, and are a mere two years into the seven year project of raising the elevation of the southern edge of the Island to meet it. Contrary to popular assumption, the Storm had done very little to slow Galveston’s growth as a commercial port, and it had done even less to phase local entrepreneurs who knew that one of the Island’s many attractions were its soft sands and warm waters, and its allure as a local seaside resort.
That was also the year that Galveston Electric Park made its awe-inspiring debut. On opening day, May 25, 1906, the owner granted free admission to the massive amusement facility that would come to be known as “The Coney Island of the South.” It was the largest resort in the western United States, and boasted a Nickelodeon with “moving picture shows,” roller coasters, a ferris wheel, penny arcade, vaudeville shows, live music, an Electric Swing, theatres, and special exhibits and displays, all brilliantly lit up by over six thousand electric lights. A special excursion train connected Houston directly to the amusement park.
In 1943 amid the tensions of World War II, the original Pleasure Pier was opened as an entertainment facility for United States military and their families. At the time it cost a staggering 1.5 million dollars to build, and was the largest park of its kind in the country. The original Pier included rides, midway games, an enormous ballroom that hosted national acts, and an outdoor theatre at the far end where visitors could watch movies under the stars. Throughout its duration a world-class aquarium, roller skating, a zoo, concerts, wax figures, and even cliff diving exhibitions were added to the venue. It was eventually opened to the public and remained a center point of attraction to the Island through the remainder of the 1940s and 50’s. In 1961, Hurricane fell swift upon Galveston, and took as one of its victims the prized Pleasure Pier.
Recently, history has repeated itself. The destruction left by Hurricane Ike in 2008 was no match to the devastation in 1900, but it was enough to send many people here packing for higher ground; the damage led even more people from the mainland to seek out other locations to vacation. A mere four years later, the City of Galveston has found itself yet again on the leading edge of the topics it knows best. Resilient engineering projects such as the Ike Dyke are being designed and considered, and small business, commerce, and real estate are experiencing rapid growth and movement. And once again, local businessmen are rallying to the front, determined to survive the assault of nature, surpass the stigmas left in its wake, and reestablish Galveston’s prominence as a family vacation destination.
One such person is Tilman Fertitta, Galveston native and proprietor of the well-known Landry’s Corporation. His contributions to Galveston tourism include the perpetuation of locally established favorites like Fish Tales and Fisherman’s Wharf, three hotels including the world famous San Luis Resort, the Galveston Convention Center, and of course, Galveston’s Historic Pleasure Pier.
The Pier opened in May of 2012, although the excitement and anticipation for the development had been building for quite some time. For three years locals and visitors drove by the depressing remnants of the once-famed Flagship Hotel, the only hotel in North America that was situated over the water. Falling prey to the ravages of Ike, the hotel’s forty year legacy came to an abrupt halt in September of 2008, suffering irreparable damage.
Following the success of the wildly popular Kemah Boardwalk, Fertitta transformed the seawall piece by piece by disassembling the old hotel and putting in its place a spectacular display of rides, lights, and amusements, all in homage to its predecessors Galveston Electric Park and the original Pleasure Pier.
Of course, the new Pleasure Pier far outshines those predecessors at the same time it continues their legacy: the innovation and technology used in creating the new Pleasure Pier far outweighs anything that has come before it. Sixteen rides, Midway Games, Texas’ first Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., along with a variety of amenities, conveniences, and activities, all combine to form a world class amusement park that stretches fearlessly over the Gulf.
Rides are available for kids of all ages and sizes. They include everything from major amusements like the fierce roller coaster Iron Shark and the log ride Pirate’s Plunge; to the gentle strum of the lolling Carousel; to all of our favorite, timeless carnival rides, like Texas Tea (teacups), Texas Flyer (swings), and Rock & Roll (remember the carousel on steroids from the local fair?). For the avid amusement park-goer, there is typically one major goal to accomplish with any visit, and that is to, in the most fun way possible, completely rearrange their insides and then use centrifugal force to put them back together. The Sea Dragon, Bumper Cars, Sky Shooter, Cyclone, and Gulf Glider all add to the collective effort in accomplishing that goal.
However, if you prefer a calmer approach to amusement the Pleasure Pier offers more than enough activity and refreshment to keep you entertained and flat on your feet. Carnival and midway games like Ring Toss and Basketball line the boardwalk, as do coin-operated High Power Telescopes, allowing you to see clearly far across the Gulf and down the Seawall. Comfortable seating is available at almost every turn, as are shaded picnic tables and benches. Commemorative memorabilia can be purchased throughout the park, such as Ride Photos and Old Time Photos, and satellite photographers move around through the park to help you capture your special day. There is face painting for the kids, and a Brew Station and designated smoking area for the bigger kids.
The entire facility is immaculately maintained, the employees are friendly and helpful, and the Pier includes many extra amenities and extras. A variety of different food is available to suit all tastes, there are lockers for rent if you wish to secure valuables or belongings, the restrooms are clean, and there is an ATM and First Aid on-site.
A day at Pleasure Pier is an experience that will surely delight people of all ages, as it does remarkably well in pleasing and providing for both children and adults. Rides, amusements, and hours of fun for the kids combine with cleanliness and convenience that all adults will appreciate.
The impact of Pleasure Pier in its first year of existence has been far reaching. To visitors and tourists, it provides an amazing addition to the family vacation or weekend excursion. For the ongoing improvements and beautification of the Seawall, it is literally and figuratively the shining beacon of progress and innovation.
But most importantly, for the local population, the Pleasure Pier has been a revival of Galveston’s finest hour, and a glimpse of the city’s enduring potential for greatness.
Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier
www.pleasurepier.comOpen Sunday-Thursday 10am-10pm, Friday & Saturday 10am-11pm
All day entrance and ride passes: $26.99 for adults, $19.99 for children under 48” tall. Individual ride tickets and walk-on passes are also available.