With waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing to your right and large tanks of crystal-blue water off to your left, the path to Marineland's Dolphin Adventure is picture-perfect. The location of Marineland of Florida, 18 miles south of St. Augustine, was designed to give tourists a great view and keep the animals safe from a direct hurricane hit. Since opening on June 23, 1938, Marineland has survived its fair share of issues to stay afloat.
The concept of opening the "world's first oceanarium" was quite grand back then, at a time when most Americans were entertained by listening to the radio. Filming marine life underwater would revolutionize movies, and dolphin attractions would help pay the bills. During the 1960s, tourists clogged A1A to see the only dolphin shows in Florida.
Everything was smooth sailing for Marine Studios (the name Marineland of Florida was adopted in the 1950s) until SeaWorld arrived on the scene. Between the time when Disney World opened in 1971 and SeaWorld appeared in 1973, Marineland's attendance peaked around 650,000 guests, a record for the park. But as SeaWorld raised the bar on marine life attractions in the 1980s, Marineland's major stockholder Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney decided to sell his shares, according to a 2005 Gainesville Sun story.
"When SeaWorld opened up, we downsized, and when I-95 opened, a lot of our traffic was taken away," said Marineland assistant Sky Austin.
In the '90s, Marineland's attendance dropped below 300,000 and steadily decreased over the next 10 years. Mother Nature played a destructive role at the park as well; Hurricanes Floyd and Irene in 1999 forced the park to close for two months.
"When Hurricane Charlie hit in 2004, it wasn't a direct hit, but the water damage was so bad, they had to tear everything down and sell most of all their land. We were going bankrupt at the time, so it was really, really rough," Austin said.
In 2003, all of the park buildings west of A1A were demolished, leaving only the original structures along the Atlantic Ocean. In 2004, the park closed completely for renovation, reopening in 2006.
"Since our reopening, Marineland has shifted its focus from a show facility to an interactive facility and discontinued shows. We offer close and personal experiences with dolphins," said Jessica Fontana, Marineland's public relations manager.
After changing ownership several times and battling financial and land issues, Marineland was purchased in January 2011 by Georgia Aquarium, based in Atlanta, for a reported $9 million.
The Marineland so many people remember is history now. These days, a concrete-block ivory building with dolphin cutouts stands where the Fudge Kitchen once was, and instead of posing for photos with the old diving suit, families pose near a huge shark's jaw.
Instead of dolphin shows, Marineland currently offers touch-and-feed sessions with the dolphins, as well as "Behind the Seas" tours that uncover other sea creatures. And there are more programs to help tourists learn and interact with the dolphins.
On the "Behind the Seas" tour, visitors see a collection of artifacts from the oceanarium's past and have up-close encounters with remoras (the fish that latch themselves onto sharks), an octopus, a red lionfish, stingrays and more.
Marineland is still home to 60-year-old Nellie, the oldest living dolphin in human care and Jacksonville University's mascot.
Dolphins no longer perform for fish treats, but the history-filled park of childhood memories is still teaching visitors about marine life.