Byline: CHRISTOPHER CALNAN
MARINELAND -- Playful dolphins tossed a blue ball over a glass wall to a group of squealing children at Marineland last weekend while Jeff Mons watched from behind a railing above.
Mons, a 41-year-old Jacksonville resident, used to visit the dolphin attraction park every summer. He returned with his wife and three children to check out the results of the facility's year-long renovation project and liked what he saw.
"It holds a special place for a lot of people," Mons said. "It means a lot that they brought it back to its original state not just for entertainment value but for its support of marine conservation in the area."
This trip was just a reconnaissance mission for Mons, who said he plans to return in warmer spring weather so his children can pet and feed the dolphins.
Marineland, along Florida A1A in Flagler County, is taking its first steps in a comeback of sorts.
The park -- which reopened in October -- is phasing in four interactive programs that take place in Marineland's new $10 million, 1.3 million-gallon habitat, a series of pools and lagoons for its 11 dolphins.
Although Marineland hasn't done a full-out marketing campaign, it has attracted about 100 visitors a day, spokeswoman Jennifer Lyche said. Visitors have been a mixture of tourists and local residents. "Once the word got out there," she said, "it was just amazing to see the turnout."
Unlike its big cousin in Orlando, SeaWorld, Marineland isn't intent on attracting large quantities of visitors, Lyche said.
"We try to keep it to as small numbers as possible so everyone has the best experience," she said. "We're not trying to bring in thousands by the bus load and cram them in. That's not what we're about."
Marineland was established in 1937 by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, a wealthy New England heir turned Hollywood producer. The park expanded during the 1950s and 1960s when annual attendance eventually peaked at about a half-million.
But when Interstate 95 supplanted the coastal highway as the main route to Florida, the Disney attractions replaced Marineland. In 2000, attendance reached a low of 20,000.
In 2001, Atlanta-based developer Jim Jacoby, a Miami native who first visited Marineland in 1950, when he was 7 years old, bought the park for nearly $1.5 million. Jacoby plans the project to make Marineland the centerpiece of a more than $100 million development with residences and a marina across Florida A1A from the 4-acre park.
"What I'm trying to create is the concept of a research resort," he said last week. "It's all about ecotourism. I think Marineland is the perfect way to tie in with marine science."
Jacoby said he plans for construction to begin in January and be completed in two years. He also expects Marineland will collaborate on marine science projects with several universities and organizations, including the University of Florida's Whitney Laboratory, which is across Florida A1A. …