But while Marineland’s focus is on education, elements of the attraction remain touristy draws. Visitors willing to pay extra for intimate dolphin experiences can stand in shallow water for 20 minutes with the slate-colored mammals or be a trainer for a day.
After all, bills need to be paid there too, owners say.
Bankrolled by a group of investors that included Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Count Ilia Tolstoy (yes, grandson of Leo), the facility opened June 23, 1938, as Marine Studios because it was intended to double as a location for filming underwater movie scenes.
The eye-popping centerpiece of the park was a 75-foot circular concrete oceanarium where bottlenose dolphins and whales frolicked in remarkable proximity to the public. For $1.10, visitors could peer at schools of neon-hued fish and menacing sharks through 200 portholes that lined the venue’s walls.
From above, dolphins could be seen flaunting their tricks on the surface of the pool, and other aquatic creatures such as loggerhead turtles, sea lions and African penguins were elsewhere on view. Theme-happy watering holes such as the Moby Dick lounge and the Rocking Ship bar appealed to customers’ wallets and non-marine pursuits, and the flamingos near the front entrance made for colorful additions to visitors’ photo albums.
Meanwhile, the business of moviemaking got under way, and Marine Studios made its film debut with the 1939 MGM short, “Marine Circus.” The site thrived as a movie set, appearing in several 1940-era “Tarzan” movies with Johnny Weissmueller; other films followed. In 1961 the facility’s name was changed in a marketing move. The tiny town that had sprung up around the park had incorporated as Marineland in 1946, and the owners decided to rename the venue after the town because it was marked on most Florida maps.
Marineland thrived through 1950s and 1960, which marked its heyday. But all of that changed with the opening of Disney World. Compounded by the opening of I-95, which funneled travelers away from Fla. A1A, and the arrival of SeaWorld Orlando in 1973, Marineland attendance deflated to 20,000 visitors a year.
Over the next several decades, the theme park would undergo a series of openings and closings, ownership changes and a bankruptcy. The facility began to fall into disrepair. In 2001, Jim Jacoby, an Atlanta developer and Georgia Aquarium board member, bought the property and closed it for a two-year renovation that included demolishing some of the original structures. It re-opened in 2006 as Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center with a fresh look, including a medical lab and eight new dolphin habitats, and a renewed mission to educate the public about marine life.
But the restoration angered some Marineland purists, who cringed at the demolition of their childhood memories.
Gone was the original circular oceanarium, as well as the patented dolphin show. Also ditched was the Rocking Ship Bar, a hangout of Ernest Hemingway. Still intact is the replica of beige coral reef that marked the original entrance, the opening to thrust heads through for a photo op beckoning as always. And the beloved statue of Neptune again presides over the garden near the front of the property.
Attendance brightened slightly. In 2009, about 66,000 people visited. But in January 2011, Jacoby sold Marineland for $9.1 million to the Georgia Aquarium, which renamed it Marineland Dolphin Adventure.