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Sunday Favorites: The Final Years of Marineland

Marineland in the 1980s

Disney World opened in 1971. Seaworld in 1973. Central Florida was well on its way.

Nellie, a bottlenose dolphin born in captivity at Marineland, was already 20 years old by the time those attractions opened, a vested old-timer who had watched the park grow as she entertained thousands each year. Nellie still lives at the park, a true founding mother at this point, after spending almost 60 years staring as the main attraction.

Nellie's world looks vastly different than it did, as none of the original tanks or original structures exist; they were torn down in 2003, and the park's current owners, the Georgia Aquarium, rebuilt the park as a "dolphin encounter" style attraction that boasts a dozen dolphins and old Nellie, still smiling and greeting visitors.

Not much is left to remind people of what the park was, but it's fitting Nellie would be the last witness to what might be considered a failed enterprise, a missed opportunity that didn't know how to evolve.

A 2003 letter to the editor published in the Jacksonville Times-Union from David Redman, former head of marketing and public relations for Marineland for over 20 years, says the park's decline started in the mid-80's.

In the 70's, during which Redman says annual attendance topped a million visitors, the park eventually fell into decline when it changed ownership. Cornelius Whitney, the original money-man, sold the property to a group of St. Augustine-based investors, the letter states, investors who cared more about the ocean front real estate than the attraction itself.


Expansion plans designed in the mid-70's were suddenly fast tracked in hopes of beating pending Florida legislation aimed at fixing coastal setbacks for new construction; Redman writes that a 101-unit motel, the motel I so loved and stayed in as a kid, which was slated to be the final piece of the multimillion dollar renovation was bumped up as the first phase.

While the new management group focused on the larger ideas like the new hotel, the attraction's nuts and bolts started to suffer. Much of the original water tanks, where they held the famed dolphin shows, fell to disrepair. Marketing budgets were slashed while Sea World's reputation, and bottom line, grew. Mortgage payments were repeatedly missed and the attraction went up for sale several times through the 90's. The park even filed for bankruptcy.


My family were among the masses drawn to Orlando, with each spring a jailbreak of sorts from Midwestern winters, Florida a promised land.

My dad could tell tons of stories about how insane we were when it came to Disney World, how he pushed me like a coach would push a football player, making me dig deep for "one more ride" after 12 straight hours of walking around the Magic Kingdom, hardly any sleep, scrapping for every inch in Space Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean.

All of that was not the vacation-part of our vacation. That was the work part. The vacation part started at the tail end of things, after all the craziness of the parks, when we headed for St. Augustine and of course Marineland, taking our time up A1A.

We would sit on the beach, we'd body surf, we'd hang out in the Moby Dick lounge on an automated, rocking life sized recreation of the Pequod; I'd drink Shirley Temples, my dad would drink beer. We'd take our time. We'd relax.

It didn't cost anything to walk around Marineland and the dolphin shows were cheap. I have a very clear picture in my mind how the park was laid out, bits and pieces of things, mental postcards of things long gone.

None of that exists anymore. It was all torn down. And if I hadn't been there myself to see it, to experience it, I wouldn't have believed it existed at all.


The former tanks were torn down to make wa for a new facility.

Today, Marinelad operates as a non-profit organization, boasting around 50,000 visitors a year. To say it's a shadow of its former self is technically correct, but the park has a focus beyond the ticket sales, closer to the research era of World War II.

Georgia Aquarium scientists serve a rehabilitation and research function, using the facilities to study and sometimes help species like giant manta rays, four of which were captured off the coast of the Atlantic not too far from Marineland in recent years.

The park still exists, but the only real piece left is Nellie, a living testament to the vision of Burden, Tolstoy and Whitney.

Over the last decade, purists have bemoaned the lack of preservation, but the history is still there, the idea of Marineland, still living on. Nellie would likely attest that, as witness to it all, from tourist attraction, to movie studio, to research facility for allied forces and then back again, that some Marineland, no matter the role it's playing, is better than no Marineland at all.

Click here to read Part 1 of the Marineland Saga


Click here to read Part 2 of the Marineland Saga


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