Photos by Kelsey & Scott Walters, photos of the Dolphin Encounter provided by Marineland
Recently, Scott decided to surprise Avery and I with a fun day out. All he told us was to grab our towels and get in the car. Before we knew it, we were at Marineland, a classic beachside attraction in St. Augustine right on the border with Palm Coast.
I didn’t grow up in Florida, but have been here for quite some time. I have passed Marineland hundreds of times while taking the scenic A1A route north, yet have never actually been. Scott remembers field trips to see the dolphin shows and animal park as a kid, but hadn’t been back in nearly 30 years.
Avery and I were thrilled to learn we weren’t there just to explore, we were set up to meet the famed dolphins face-to-face with a Dolphin Meet and Greet! If, like Scott, you grew up on Marineland field trips but haven’t been in quite awhile, it might be time to revisit an old favorite! A lot has changed over the history of Marineland, but a lot has stayed the same.
On its opening day 83 years ago, well before TV commercials and social media, what was then known as Marine Studios welcomed a whopping 30,000 guests under the historic arch entrance that stands today. That day in June of 1938 it became the world’s first oceanarium, and was founded by Douglas Burden, C.V. Whitney and Ilia Tolstoy, who were involved in the movie industry. While the seaside attraction was open to tourists, it often served its purpose as a movie set, with ten films taking place at Marineland over the years from 1939 to the most recent, “Bernie the Dolphin,” in 2018.
In the 1940s, the park gradually expanded the dolphin shows for the public from simple feedings and viewings to exhibits of their complex behaviors, wondering and delighting audiences. They also welcomed Spray, the world’s first dolphin to be successfully born in human care. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the name was changed to the now iconic Marineland and became the state’s leading attraction (pre-Mickey) with around 500,000 guests per year.
The Marineland History Museum, located in downtown St. Augustine at The Oldest House Complex, details the rich history of the facility with many global firsts in marine science, film making and animal training.
After years of sitting on the beach and millions of tourists and hoards of kids on field trips passing through, natural wear and tear of the original structures took over and in the early 2000s a massive renovation took place. While a lot of what you may remember as a kid remains, the main change was the modern 1.3 million gallon facility used to house the dolphins.
Now under the ownership and management of the Georgia Aquarium, Marineland Dolphin Adventure provides both unique opportunities for scientists and researchers, but also an environment where guests can join the dolphins in their habitat and make connections and lifelong memories.
Since Avery is small and this was her first time meeting a dolphin up-close, we opted for an out-of-water Meet and Greet experience. For this experience and the in-water Dolphin Encounter, kids 4 and under do not need their own ticket to participate, but must be held by an adult and participate with the paying adult. Our highly interactive program was about 15 minutes and we were able to give the dolphin, Sunny, hand signals to complete behaviors, pet him and learn about him. Just because this is a poolside attraction doesn’t mean you won’t get wet though! We got soaked as Sunny flew by us in the water to splash us with his tail and leap and flip several feet in the air. Avery squealed with delight with each splash and, of course, gave Sunny a big round of applause for every task he completed.
The rest of the park features other marine wildlife for viewing including sea turtles and sharks. Interpretive exhibits provide educational details on the creatures that call the park home. The real stars of the show are of course the dolphins, however. If you do not plan to participate in a program or have already completed one, a large stadium style seating area is available to watch the programs or watch the dolphins not currently “working.” They were highly interactive and loved zooming by Avery and peeking at the tiny human watching them in awe.
In water encounters are 30 minutes and provide even more hands-on interactions with the marinelife. Swimming programs are also available for a truly once in a lifetime experience. Visit Marineland online for details and restrictions for each program. Plenty of photos are taken of your interaction and are available for purchase.
MARINELAND DOLPHIN ADVENTURE
9600 Oceanshore Blvd., St. Augustine 32080
Hours and Tickets:
Open daily from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
General Admission: $14.99/adult; $13.99/senior; $7.99/child; (4 and under free)
Meet and Greet: $59; Encounter: $99
Swim Adventure: $149 and up