Forgotten Florida: Marineland Oceanarium and Aquarium

by AbbyFitz

Before Walt Disney World and Seaworld there was Marineland. Learn the history of the park and why even after 75 years Marineland is a must-see attraction.

Conquistadors, celebrities, mobsters, and snowbirds have been flocking to Florida for the past 500 years.

What drew them here? Some were in search of wealth, others just the warmth.

In the early 20th century, entrepreneurs opened many attractions all over Florida to cash in on the influx of visitors.

These tourist attractions were wildly popular in their day. It was not uncommon for parks such as Marineland to have 900,000 visitors or more a year.

But in 1971 the opening of Walt Disney World changed all that.

Ask any kid around the world what they want to see when they visit Florida. Most of those children are going to tell you Disney World.

What else is there to see in Florida anyway?

Well, a lot actually.

Fortunately, a few tourist attractions such as Marineland have survived, allowing a whole new generation to enjoy these first parks.

The First Oceanarium in the World

30,000 Visitors on Opening Day

In 1938, Marineland opened as Marine Studios. It was the first oceanarium in the world.

The vision was to recreate the world beneath the ocean so it could be filmed for newsreels and movies. Visitors to the park could essentially view the bottom of the sea with the comfort of looking through glass windows.

Marine Studios: Attracting Artists of All Kinds

Writers, Movie Stars, Elvis, and Even a Dog

From the beginning, Marine Studios had celebrity written all over it.

One of the creators behind Marine Studios was a grandson of Leo Tolstoy. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Ernest Hemingway were regulars at Moby Dick's Bar located inside the park.

In the 1950's, Hollywood came calling. Movies such as The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Port Sinister, Sea Hunt, and many more were filmed here.

Even Elvis and Benji made movies here, Live a Little, Love a Little, and Benji Takes a Dive at Marineland, respectively.

During this time, Marine Studios changed its name to Marineland. Wildly popular with tourists and Hollywood alike, it averaged 500,000 visitors a year.

Jumping Porpoises, Marineland, Florida
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Dolphins: The Main Attraction

Science and Education Meet

In 1938, dolphins had never been kept in captivity before. The first dolphins in Marineland came from right next door, the ocean.

Originally, Marineland's focus was on all sea life. However, the introduction of dolphins quickly changed everything.

Not even knowing if they were capable of being trained, a German elephant trainer who couldn't even swim came to train the dolphins at Marineland.

Within a year, they were doing tricks and drawing even more people to the park. Dolphins quickly became the main attraction. And while they still showed other sea life, they were not as popular and eventually were phased out.

Marineland also became a place to learn. The University of Florida even opened a marine laboratory there.

Scientists from all over the world came to study dolphins. Most of what we now know about dolphins, such as their behaviors and even sonar, were learned there in those early years.

Video: Dolphin Shows are What Made Marineland Famous

Marineland: A Park Transformed

Decline and Rebirth

After Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the writing was on the wall for most of Florida's roadside attractions.

One by one they closed, until only a handful remained in the 80's and 90's.

Eclipsed in popularity by the likes of Seaworld, Marineland managed to hold on until the late 1990's. Two hurricanes and lack of visitors finally closed the park.

Luckily, the owners of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta took an interest and bought Marineland to save it and give it new life.

In 2006, it reopened as Marineland Dolphin Adventure. Instead of shows, Marineland is now focused on dolphin education. Visitors can now swim with dolphins, feed them, and even be a dolphin trainer for a day.

There are daily tours of the park, which include Marineland's history, aquariums of oceanic creatures, and, of course, dolphins.

Marineland has survived Mickey Mouse, financial hardships, and a lack of visitors, but it is now a thriving attraction that should be on everyone's list to see when visiting Florida.

My Review of Marineland Dolphin Adventure

More Personal than Seaworld
Skippy the Dolphin at Marineland
Skippy the Dolphin at Marineland

I had visited Marineland on a field trip when I was a child, but back then it was only a show park. I remember watching dolphins jump through hoops, do tricks, and even a surfing dog.

Marineland is completely different now. I did not even recognize it when I pulled into the parking lot.

Instead of shows, they now offer various tours, such as:

  • Swim with dolphins
  • Feed the dolphins
  • Create artwork with dolphins
  • Become a dolphin trainer
  • General overview tour

I hadn't came prepared to get wet, so I chose the general tour. I was not disappointed though, I learned a lot about dolphins and the history of Marineland.

I've been to Seaworld. It's very crowded and very commercial. Marineland lets you get up close and personal with the dolphins.

At Seaworld, I would not be able to get within 10 feet of the dolphins, let alone touch them.

Nellie is the Oldest Dolphin in Captivity
Nellie is the Oldest Dolphin in Captivity

Marineland Museum

Antique Diving Helmet
Antique Diving Helmet
Dolphin Feeding Basket
Dolphin Feeding Basket

At the beginning of the tour, we were introduced to the various dolphins. Marineland is home to the world's oldest dolphin in captivity, Nellie, who was born in 1953.

After a visit with Nellie, we went downstairs to view the dolphins from underwater, and also to visit the Marineland museum and sea life exhibit.

The Marineland museum houses items from the park's past, such as old filming and park equipment.

Because little was known about dolphins and their feeding habits at the time Marineland opened, dolphins were fed underwater by trainers who donned heavy underwater diving helmets and carried fish in baskets.

Antique movie equipment, such as cameras, boxes, and lighting that were left by the filming crews are also on display.

Antique Movie Camera
Antique Movie Camera

Marineland's Sea Life Exhibit

An Invasive Lion Fish
An Invasive Lion Fish
A Purple Spiny Lobster
A Purple Spiny Lobster
A Black and Purple Fish
A Black and Purple Fish

Also downstairs is the sea life exhibit. Here I saw fish and sea creatures that are commonly found off the coast of North Florida, as well as the Atlantic Ocean.

Non-native species that are invasive to Florida are also on display, warning against the release of pets into the waterways.

Many sea animals that are either found injured or caught mistakenly are donated to Marineland. There were several different quarantine tanks that held horseshoe crabs, snails, spiny lobsters, and a whole host of creatures I can't identify that fishermen had brought to the park.

The tour guides are very helpful and answered all of our questions, but naughty me was too busy taking pictures of all the sea life rather than paying attention to their answers.

What I loved most about this exhibit is that everything was so easy to access and see. The fish, eel, octopus, etc., are in large glass tanks which makes them easy to view.

The crawly sea creatures such as the lobster, crabs, snails, and sea urchins are in open tanks that I could walk right up to and view from above.

Marineland is far better than Seaworld if you want a up close, personal tour of dolphins and marine life.

Photos of Marineland in Florida

The Old Entrance to Marineland, Florida
The Old Entrance to Marineland, Florida
The Beach at Marineland
The Beach at Marineland
Dolphin Trainers at Marineland
Dolphin Trainers at Marineland
Skippy the Dolphin
Skippy the Dolphin
Horseshoe Crab at Marineland in Florida
Horseshoe Crab at Marineland in Florida
A Large Snail at Marineland
A Large Snail at Marineland

Where is Marineland in Florida?

Relax, it's on the way to Disney

Directions and Information:

Marineland is located on A1A about 15 minutes south of St. Augustine and 48 minutes north of Daytona Beach.

For those who want to visit while on their way to or from Walt Disney World, Marineland is located 110 miles north of Orlando.

Marineland is open 365 days a year, but with varying hours. Advanced tickets and online reservations for dolphin encounters can be purchased on their website.

Tips from a local:
Plan your trip to Florida during the months of September through March. Temperatures during that time of year vary anywhere from 35 F to 85 F, but, more importantly, there are no crowds.

Vintage Images of the World's Oldest Oceanarium

Updated: 10/19/2014, AbbyFitz
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AbbyFitz on 12/05/2013

Thank you, I'm glad you liked it!

DerdriuMarriner on 12/05/2013

AbbyFitz, Dolphins are so friendly, graceful, intelligent, and playful. They're great entertainers. I enjoyed touring Marineland via your travelogue! Thank you.

AbbyFitz on 10/15/2013

It is neat and I'm glad they saved it. Too many places have been shut down.

Mira on 10/15/2013

Nice presentation. I already like what they did with Marineland. They found a good and nice niche and bet on it. I'm not surprised it's popular.

AbbyFitz on 05/01/2013

Was Sea Hunt good? I never saw it. You should give Marineland a go though, a cute little place.

kimbesa on 05/01/2013

I love these old places. Never been to Marineland, but I remember Sea Hunt!

AbbyFitz on 04/30/2013

Thank you so much! It's definitely worth a stop on a trip

EliasZanetti on 04/30/2013

Very nice presentation and historical background of Marineland. It's nice that, in the end, it survived the rapid changes of the modern world. If ever happen to be in Florida I'll make sure to pay a visit since I really love dolphins. Great article!

AbbyFitz on 04/29/2013

Thank you!

dustytoes on 04/29/2013

In all the years I lived in Florida (27), we never went to Marineland. This is an excellent page showing that there is more to Florida than just Disney World. My advice to tourists is to stay away from the heavily populated tourist areas in Orlando and Kissimmee, and see the real Florida. It has a lot to offer.

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