The New Marineland
It rained again Saturday at the beach. I know, no big surprise any more, but with my daughter visiting, I wish we’d have had better weather. But the good news is, even with less-than-perfect weather in one spot in Florida, there’s always another. We chose to drive down to Marineland.
For those of you who remember this taste of old Florida, well it’s a bit of a disappointment now. What was a classic pre-Disney roadside attraction has become little more than a place to watch dolphin swim in a tank for your $8.00 general admission. There are very nice young employees to answer your questions about the dolphin, and about what’s to come (they say) at Marineland, but it’s nothing like it was.
In its heyday, long before I came to Florida, it was a combination tourist attraction and movie lot. A half million people a year came to Marineland in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Billed as “The Worlds’ First Oceanarium”, “Revenge of The Creature” a sequel to “Creature From The Black Lagoon”, and “Tarzan” were among the parks’ claims to fame, though many movies and television shows that needed a lush, tropical backdrop were shot at least in part at Marineland. We snuck onto the old movie lot once when we visited, and just tromped around in the scrub. It was difficult to see where anything had been, but it was cool none the less. All that is being cleared now, for what, I don’t know and I didn’t ask.
In the park proper, there was the obligatory gift shop, but there was also an enormous 18 foot deep open aquarium, where fish large and small, sea turtles, and even a small shark or two swam in endless circles in front of viewports that were growing increasingly opaque with age. As you entered the aquarium, there were displays of old hard hat diving equipment, and a pictogram telling the story of the park as a movie set and tourist attraction. My best memory of Marineland is still the day we dove in that big tank. Jenni was getting checked out as an open water diver, and I went diving with her that afternoon. A big grouper bit my hand. It was a cool place to dive even if it was only 18 feet deep. And for an hour, we were among the fish that the tourists saw as they peered into the view ports.
But as Orlando’s “one stop shopping” approach to Florida tourism and it’s Las-Vegas-wannabe glitz swallowed up tourist dollars like a mid-state sink hole, fewer and fewer people came to pay to see the dolphin, the fish, even the small flock of penguins that called Marineland home. Even the ability to interact with the dolphin, we have a “Sunny The Dolphin” original painting in our home, and even dive in the tank, weren’t enough to save the park. The tank leaked badly, not enough money was coming in to sustain the park, and it was sold.
The gentleman who bought the oceanfront attraction said he would preserve Marineland, but also wanted it to be a hands-on educational facility. No one could really argue with that. But while he preserved the site, what was Marineland, even the familiar blue arches over the old oceanarium, is now gone. The dolphin have performed their last show, and it’s expensive to swim with them.
Not that we didn’t enjoy our visit. The dolphin are playful creatures, and several times, as we watched through the thick plexiglass, they tossed basketballs over the wall and begged us to throw them back … posing for pictures as they did. It made me want to go get my gear and go for a dive, but I don’t think that’s allowed any more. One of the employees told us that the other animals and fish were mostly on loan to other facilities, and that a new oceanarium is planned. That, I think, would be a good thing, and I hope it comes to fruition.
I’m not one of those people who pines for nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. I understand the progress happens, and when things are unsustainable, change is inevitable. Marineland was never going to be what it was, and that’s OK. I guess I was just a little sad to see another slice of an Old Florida that I frankly never really knew is gone.
And to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why.