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Sunday Favorites: The Original Theme Park

The original Marineland

I don't like theme parks. I think they represent everything that’s wrong with Florida, everything that visitors take for granted.

Don't get me wrong, I understand they bring jobs and economic benefit to the state, but more often than not, the family of four spending thousands on a trip to Disney World would likely have just as much fun, and spend far less, enjoying any of the 161 state parks scattered around 58 of Florida's 67 counties.

You can imagine my surprise when I learned that today's roller coaster having, Harry Potter loving, Spiderman-cartoon-character clad parks owe much of their success to Florida's first theme park; a destination that was as purely Florida as any of the things I think are great about the state we love.

I was even more surprised when I learned that my boyfriend, an Indiana native, used to visit the park as a kid. He shared a lot of stories that intrigued my curiosity. I wanted to know more, about this place I knew nothing of.

Marineland, located in south St. John's County, about 18 miles south of St. Augustine, opened in 1938 as the world's first marine attraction.

The dolphin show at Marineland

Tucked against a stretch of sand along the Atlantic Ocean, the park would live several lives, from tourist attraction, to movie studio to ocean research facility during its 75 year history.

Today, the park is a little more than a shell of its former self, most of the structures and hotels were torn down after decades of decline. But, the park, even in its current format, houses a unique and proud history, tied to everything from science to Hollywood to WWII, and is listed as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Government.

Marineland opened in the midst of the Great Depression. Most investors thought of it as a silly if not pointless effort by the founders, W. Douglas Burden and Ilia Tolstoy, to launch a marine themed attraction while much of the nation wallowed in poverty. Burden and Tolstoy realized early on that the construction of their extensive plans, which included several massive steel water tanks and aerator equipment that pumped in thousands of gallons of seawater per minute, would be extremely expensive.

They looked to various bankers to back their vision, but no one quite understood what the duo had in mind. People were doing well just to eat in those days, but the group held strong to their beliefs and eventually found help in the form of Cornelious Vanderbilt Whitney, a businessman, film producer and writer, who helped fund their fledgling idea. Whitney plunged $100,000 into the project.

The largest shark in captivity at the time

Then there was the obstacle of bring the sea ashore. The owners commissioned a vessel, the Porpoise, to catch the animals. The Porpoise was similar in style to that of a shrimp boat, however, it had a trap door in the stern that could be opened so the captured sea creatures could swim into a flooded compartment twenty feet in length and four feet wide. After animals were captured or netted, they were led into the bilge of the boat, where they were kept safely during the duration of the trip until the captain reached Marineland. Then they were lifted from the flooded compartment to the oceanarium via canvas harness and crane.

Tolstoy used a harpoon and dipped the tip in with anesthesia to capture the sharks, which were kept in a tank with barracuda. A bottlenose dolphin, a female weighing over 400 pounds, and her 125-pound calf were caught two months before the oceanarium opened. Early on the owners could tell that dolphins were the most entertaining and expressive, they were also hardy. The founders added to their new dolphin family, placing them in a tank of their own.

The first manta caught was a whopping thirteen feet long and weighed 1500 pounds. The monster was netted in the surf a mile and a half north of the oceanarium. The efforts of twenty-four men and a gasoline crane were required to pull him ashore and move him to the circular tank. By opening day the oceanarium was looking well stocked with sealife and ready to show to the world.

 A dolphin family at Marineland

June 23, 1938. The thee founders weren’t ready for what happened, expecting only a small group of people. Instead they found more than 22,000 onlookers waiting at the gates. State road A1A, which skirts the Atlantic, was packed with cars, unable to move. The founders must have looked out on their creation with total approval, thinking their investment was a small price compared to the profits they would be producing.

Success continued and Whitney's influence took over, turning the attraction from operating solely as an attraction into a place where motion picture producers flocked to in order to enrich their film productions with realistic water-based sets.

In the 1940's, parts of the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller were filmed there. Then in the 1950s, Universal Studio's wildly successful films "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and its sequel in "Revenge of the Creature" were also shot at the location, the latter of which also used parts of downtown Jacksonville as the location where the feared creature terrorized a restaurant filled with unsuspecting victims.

The attraction's transition into big-time movie studio wasn't without bumps, though. And before "Benji", the move star pup who became the first-ever scuba diving dog to hit Marineland's waters, the attraction took a dark turn during WWII. It became a home of strange experiments and most of the animals’ fate was in question in what appeared to be dark days ahead.

As the war raged across the globe, Marineland faced its own hurdles and the park would struggle throughout the great war to define its place in America.

Tune in next week and see what happens…


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