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St. Augustine Family Adventure: Marineland

Photo by Tammie Thompson With its classic retro design, amazing performing dolphins and more than six decades of history, Marineland has been a beloved attraction for generations of nostalgic Floridians with fond memories of visiting the park in its heyday during the 50s and 60s.

Located 20 minutes south of St. Augustine, on the beach between the Matanzas River and the Atlantic Ocean, the family-oriented theme park was one of Florida's top tourist destinations, a place where ocean lovers could see Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, sharks, sea turtles, sea lions and other sea life - much of it through underwater portholes in the park's two oceanariums.

Marineland, and its namesake township, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each year for more than half a century. But hurricane damage, the construction of Interstate 95, the rise of theme parks in Orlando, and struggling management, put the park's future at risk by the late 1990s. After a series of ownership changes, the oceanarium was purchased with development plans in process.

As we wandered the peaceful park, I couldn't help but wish that some of Marineland's historic qualities be preserved. Located right next to the ocean, the sea breezes and melodic waves are a much-coveted asset compared to the concrete walls of Orlando parks. Designed and built using a unique style of architecture called "Nautical Modern," Marineland still features broad, sweeping curves and art-deco arches as well as classic marine elements such as portholes, curved canopies and brass-encased steel railing like those found on ships.

Originally called Marine Studios, the park was initially intended for use as an underwater movie studio. But its developers were unsure that revenues from underwater films could sustain the park, and decided to develop the property as both a movie studio and a tourist attraction.

Photo by Tammie Thompson More than 20,000 people attended the park's opening in June 1938. The place was so original and unique; the word "oceanarium" was coined to describe the facility, defined as a "place where the sea was re-created in an enormous aquarium in which diverse species of marine life lived together in harmony."

The Marineland studio provided underwater facilities for such classics as Tarzan and Lloyd Bridges' Sea Hunt series. Clint Eastwood filmed his first motion picture here, The Revenge of the Creature. Writers Ernest Hemingway and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings were said to be regulars in Marineland's Moby Dick bar.

Today Marineland is home to more than 70 marine species, and most famously to Nellie, born at Marineland in 1953, the world's oldest dolphin born in a marine park. Nellie lives with her pool mate, Lilly, a forty-something rare blonde dolphin.

In addition to interacting with dolphins and diving with sea turtles, sting rays and fish, visitors can view dolphins in training and watch divers feed sea turtles, stingrays and other sea creatures in the 450,000 gallon Rectangular Oceanarium - Marineland's original attraction.

While Marineland is no match for Sea World or Marine World, it's well worth a stop to catch this fleeting glimpse of "Americana". Pack a picnic and spend the day with Nellie - and really get to know her. Leave your theme park mentality at the door. The Marineland experience is more like a visit to the park, with the added value of an educational taste at a very low entrance fee. But hurry - Marineland will start their renovation soon.

For more information on Marineland call (904)471-1111 or toll free at 1-877-326-7539. Or see their website at Marineland.net.

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