Friday, November 11, 2005

Marineland reopens with interactive dolphins program

With a rush of water, Dazzle soars gracefully 10 feet through the air and returns to the pool with a mighty splash.

The 17-year-old Atlantic Bottlenose is one of 11 dolphins at Marineland of Florida undergoing training for an interactive program that officials say will give visitors a more hands-on experience than the spectator shows that once made the 67-year-old attraction famous.

In another pool, trainer Mackenzie Mueller works with dolphins Pebbles and Roxy by giving them signals and grabbing their flippers as they push themselves out of the water with their tails.
"Getting to work with these guys is amazing," Mueller said. "They have their own personalities."
After being closed for more than a year, the "World's First Oceanarium" reopened recently with interactive programs designed to let visitors swim and play with dolphins in a new 1.3-million-gallon complex of pools and lagoons. Officials say the experience is more intimate than anything the park has presented in the past.

"What we offer is the ability to get close to animals that a lot of people are in love with," said Chad Stouffer, assistant supervisor of marine mammals.

Marineland closed in 2004 after hurricanes damaged the attraction and it will never be the same again.

The archaic sky-blue arches rising above the old tank are no longer the park's centerpiece. Officials have no plans to reopen that portion of Marineland, and Stouffer said it could be torn down.

The park still features aquariums with exotic fish and sea turtles, but the sea lions and penguins are gone, loaned to other marine facilities. They could be brought back, but Stouffer said the dolphin encounters are the park's new focus.

Instead of watching dolphins jump through hoops or play with toys, visitors can get a
close-up encounter in the slick new Dolphin Conservation Center.

"Old Marineland was a show-based facility," Stouffer said. "The direction we are moving into now is an interactive-based facility."

Prices range from $120 for a 30-minute swim with the animals to $40 to play with them from the edge of the pool. General admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children.

For now, the attraction is open only on weekends from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A seven-day-a-week schedule is planned when renovations, now in final stages, are complete.

Future plans include a resort hotel with an aquarium in the lobby. Park officials also plan to host research programs and educate visitors about marine life and protecting the environment.
"In every program, we're going to have some kind of conservation message," Stouffer said.
Officials hope the new exhibit can breathe new life into the aging attraction. Not too long ago, its future was far from certain.

Marineland opened in 1938 with a hotel and a campground that have since closed. It was one of Florida's first and busiest tourist attractions, but attendance dropped in the 1970s as visitors turned to Walt Disney World, Sea World and other theme parks.

The park went through two bankruptcy filings and two ownership changes between 1997 and 2001.
Atlanta businessman Jim Jacoby bought the park in 2001 and began an ambitious remodeling plan.

Vanessa Welter, spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state's tourism bureau, said historic attractions that are off the beaten path such as Cypress Gardens are enjoying a renewed interest. There's no reason Marineland cannot follow suit and build a niche in Florida's dynamic tourism market, she said.

"When people come to Florida, the whole thing is a vacation," Welter said.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"