From the fifties to the sixties, Pacific Ocean Park (POP) was a family-oriented Los Angeles attraction designed by Hollywood’s finest. Its beachside location sat on 28 acres at the border of Santa Monica and Venice Beach and made for a glamorous amusement park that extended out into the Pacific Ocean. Featuring modern rides designed by Hollywood set designers, it was often featured in films and on television in the sixties. By the time the seventies rolled around, however, the former site of POP was an abandoned, crumbling, and partially burned ghost of a once-glorious amusement park.
So what is the history behind this mysterious park? How did it have such a captivating opening and equally calamitous decline? Here’s the story behind Santa Monica’s famous Pacific Ocean Park.
Stages of Pier Rebirth
The story of the Pier itself begins long before the opening of the POP. The Pier had many rebirths over the 20th century, due in large part to several fires that devastated the structure.
The Pier first opened as the Million Dollar Pier in 1911—this incarnation of the space was short-lived though, as a fire burned it to the ground just fifteen months later.
The Pier and attractions were reconstructed for a new opening in 1913 and renamed to Pickering Pier in 1919 when Ernest Pickering purchased it and expanded the land by 400,000 square feet. His expansion brought on five new rides and kept local business owners and concessionaires happy. A 1920 re-opening saw 85,000 visitors on the first weekend, but within three years, another fire left the Park in shambles.
Later, the Pier was purchased and rebuilt by Charles Lick as Ocean Park Pier. In 1925, the Pier re-opened for business and flourished for a number of years, undergoing several renovations and improvements.
Over time, however, renovations and updates dwindled, and the Pier eventually grew old-fashioned and outdated. By World War II, the Pier saw large declines in attendance. It wasn’t until 1956 that the Pier began its transformation from run-down relic into Pacific Ocean Park.
Building Pacific Ocean Park
Purchased in 1956 by CBS and Los Angeles Turf Club, Ocean Park Pier underwent two years of renovations before re-opening as the beloved sea-themed Pacific Ocean Park.
When CBS and Los Angeles Turf Club first acquired the Pier’s lease, they proposed a $10 million investment in a nautical-themed park that would compete with Disneyland. In order to make this happen, they hired top-notch amusement park designers and renowned Hollywood special effects artists. New, innovative attractions were created for the Park by over 80 people, who worked on the project for more than a year.
Since competing with Disney was an expensive venture, POP owners decided to use a Disney-inspired strategy, procuring corporate sponsors to split some of the exhibit costs. Additionally, they opted to repair and refurbish existing structures and integrate old attractions into the new design. Some of these historic attractions featured at POP included the merry-go-round, fun house, and roller coaster.
When it opened, Pacific Ocean Park was ornately decorated with sea-green and white art. The entrance featured fountains, sculptures, and more, and the ticket booth was nestled under a six-legged starfish canopy lined with bubbles and sea horses.
A Grand Opening
When it finally opened to the public on Saturday, July 28, 1958, POP drew a crowd of nearly 20,000 people and dozens of Hollywood celebrities. The second day saw nearly double the attendance with 37,262 guests—enough to cause significant traffic jams in the area. Famously, POP outperformed Disneyland in visitor numbers during its first week.
Entering the Park was a spectacle in its own right. Visitors entered the Park through Neptune’s Kingdom, descending a submarine elevator to the oceanic corridors below and emerging at a large sea tank display with sharks and other fish. Visitors could see a massive diorama that featured some of the other local sea life, like artificial turtles, manta rays, and sharks glided by over coral reefs and hanging seaweed.
Getting into the Park cost ninety cents for adults, with a slightly discounted rate for children. The fee included access to Neptune’s Kingdom, the Sea Circus, and the Westinghouse Enchanted Forest exhibit, but rides and other attractions needed extra tickets. Eventually, the Park shifted its admissions and ride fee structure, which some believe was the beginning of POP’s decline.
Pacific Ocean Park Attractions
There were several impressive features that attracted visitors to Pacific Ocean Park during its heyday.
The Westinghouse Enchanted Forest and Nautilus Submarine Exhibit were major draws for the Park, even including a 150-foot model of the atomic reactor section of a former submarine. The Sea Circus, which featured dolphin and sea lion shows, was another popular attraction, and the auditorium was home to major rock shows including Ritchie Valens, Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd. There were also two dining and shopping areas for visitors to enjoy meals and hunt for souvenirs.
As for rides, POP had a roller coaster, two Ferris wheels, and an artistic carousel, as well as popular attractions like the Flying Dutchman and Deepest Deep, where riders took a fake submarine ride with mermaids and other sea life. Like many amusement parks, simple carnival rides like bumper cars, and a tilt-a-whirl also provided hours of fun to visitors.
POP’s popularity lasted about a decade before its closing in 1967. The Park’s second season was worse than the first, and the owners closed it for winter, later selling the property for $10,000,000.
The sixties saw rides left in disrepair and a decline in the safety of the surrounding neighborhood. A change in ticket sales to one general admission price without separate ride tickets also contributed to financial trouble. Even bringing in money up front, there were high overhead costs which caused maintenance to fall by the wayside.
After changes in ownership and management, POP had a successful 1964 season. However, the city of Santa Monica began its Ocean Park urban renewal project soon after, which led to construction and demolitions near the Pier. The spate of street closures near the Park that resulted from this initiative eventually put POP in dire financial straits.
By 1967, POP’s creditors acted on several months of non-payments, forcing it into involuntary bankruptcy. The Park closed on October 6, 1967. Like many iterations of the Pier before it, Pacific Ocean Park later suffered a fire, leaving much of the Park in ashes.
There’s nothing left now in the spot where POP once stood, but luckily, another park opened just a few miles north to offer fun and games to Santa Monica locals and tourists alike: our very own Pacific Park!
Pacific Ocean Park might be long gone, but you can still experience local history and enjoy a seaside experience like no other at the Santa Monica Pier.