More than three decades before SeaWorld opened in Orlando in 1973, Marineland of Florida was a major tourist attraction, hosting as many as 900,000 visitors annually.
Located between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, Marineland started out as Marine Studios. Business partners W. Douglas Burden, Sherman Pratt, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Ilya Tolstoy (grandson of Leo Tolstoy) envisioned a venue for filming underwater sequences for movies, but quickly realized the potential of the facility as a tourist destination.
“Marineland illustrated the connection between nature and spectacle,” says Florida historian Gary Mormino, author of the book Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. “They originally conceived as Marine Studios as a motion picture facility for studying and filming sea specimens in an enclosed, oceanlike environment. But when the partners discovered that the blue bottlenose dolphins (also called porpoises) could be trained to perform tricks above water, the oceanarium became primarily a tourist attraction. The public oohed and aahed over leaping dolphins, a porpoise pulling a poodle on a surfboard, and sea lions barking at clowns.”
When Marineland opened on June 28, 1938, more than 20,000 visitors attended. Tourists weren’t the only people attracted to the new theme park.
“I was born in 1940,” says Flagler County historian Sisco Deen. “It closed during the (second world) war, but when it opened up in ‘46, after the war, I visited there as a child. I lived with my aunt and uncle and when they told me they were taking me to Marineland, I thought it was like the Marines in the service. But I really enjoyed it. It had two tanks. It was developed for a film studio but then people would come and look because they had the creatures of the deep in their natural, or pretty natural, habitat. You could observe them through little portholes in the side of the tanks. And so the tourists start coming.”
Marineland had literary connections that helped add to its popularity. The grandson of Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina was one of the park’s founders. Beloved Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was married to Norton Baskin, who managed the Dolphin Restaurant and Moby Dick Lounge at Marineland. Renowned authors Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos also visited the bar at the park.
The original goal of using the facility as a place to shoot movies was realized. Portions of the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon and the 1955 sequel Revenge of the Creature were filmed at Marineland. In the sequel, the captured creature is put on display at Marineland, and trained with a cattle prod.
For several decades, Marineland was one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions, along with Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens, and Weeki Wachee.
“Marineland attracted huge crowds, in part because of the novelty of ‘spectacular nature,’ in part because of its location on A1A between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, perfectly situated to snag Miami bound travelers,” says Mormino.
When Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971, it had a positive impact on Marineland, significantly boosting annual attendance. When SeaWorld opened a couple of years later, the impact on Marineland was devastating. SeaWorld was in direct competition with Marineland.
The University of Florida established the Whitney Marine Laboratory adjacent to Marineland in 1974.
In the mid-1980s, original owner Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney sold Marineland to a group of investors, beginning a series of resales of the park to new owners. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the park entered a state of disrepair. Eventually a not-for-profit corporation was established to keep Marineland going.
During a two year renovation beginning in 2004, the two original oceanarium tanks from 1938 were demolished. Lifelong Flagler County resident Ray Mercer visited the park as a young man when it first opened.
“It was very exciting for me to see the life in the water through the portholes,” Mercer says. “I went every chance I got.”
Today, the park still exists as Marineland Dolphin Adventure, a “hands-on” educational facility operated since 2011 by the Georgia Aquarium. Much of the former Marineland property is now owned by Flagler County and protected as the River to the Sea Preserve.