MARINELAND -- Before Disney World was even a twinkle in Walt's eye, people were lining up to visit Florida's oldest marine attraction.
The venue's storied history, from serving as a location for Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and other films, to its recent move to tax-exempt status under new ownership, is as complicated as it is colorful.
The little town of Marineland has never been much of a town, really. While it was incorporated in 1946, as often as not dolphins outnumber human residents.
The town's longest "standing" resident is Nellie, the 58-year-old bottlenose who was born there and once starred in a Timex commercial in the 1960s.
Originally opened as Marine Studios in 1938, in its heyday the roadside attraction -- and the town that supported it -- included a marina, a pier, three hotels, campgrounds and a restaurant with a "rocking ship" bar that attracted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, said Kurt Allen, vice president and general manager of Marineland, now called Marineland Dolphin Adventure.
Although its mailing address lists St. Augustine, Marineland is in Flagler County, off State Road A1A just south of the St. Johns County line. Over the years, the attraction's precise location has moved slightly during rebuilding and it has survived bankruptcy, Allen said. Brass portholes that once allowed visitors their first glimpses of the undersea world now serve as picture frames. A marble statue of Neptune, commissioned in 1981, has also been moved but still greets visitors at the entrance to the gardens.
"There were only roadside attractions in the '30s. Everything is interactive now," Allen said. "But then we had a dolphin show and sea lions. In 1937- '38, no one really knew what was out there in the water. They could look through the portholes of the rectangle tank and see all sorts of things."
Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta bought and assumed operations of Marineland in January. While research and conservation have always been part of the mission at Marineland, they are now the primary focus, along with public education, aquarium officials said.
After the purchase was finalized, Marineland also took on the tax-exempt status of its parent company, which opened in Atlanta in 2005 as a nonprofit educational and conservation organization, officials said.
With the number of property tax payers in town now down to two -- Pulte Homes and Marineland's former owner, Jim Jacoby, who still owns property there -- far fewer tax dollars will be available to run the town.
"My gut feeling is that we will still have enough (money) to run the town," said Marineland Mayor Jim Netherton. "We can change the (tax) rate, so we should be able to claim the same amount of taxes."
Netherton said the town of Marineland is "unlike anything that most people consider a town" because its flexible population of eight to 12 includes people that aren't property owners and they don't pay property taxes anyway. Additionally, essential services such as police and fire protection, water and sewer service and waste disposal are provided through interlocal agreements or private contracts.
In all, Marineland residents paid about $36,000 in property taxes last year, according to Flagler County Property Appraiser Jay Gardner.
"If they still need about the same (money) to operate as before the 'park' being purchased, then the other taxpayers will have to pay it via an increased (tax) rate," Gardner said.
Being a nonprofit in and of itself does not make the facility exempt from property taxes but the educational and scientific nature of it does, Gardner said.
"We focus on education and research, and we have extended our mission (with the purchase of Marineland)," said David Kimmel., president of Georgia Aquarium, which is also tax exempt. "The Conservation Field Station (across the street from the public venue) is the headquarters of our research work with dolphins. Marineland Dolphin Adventure is where we focus that message to the public."
A spokeswoman from Gardner's office said by law proposed property tax notices have to be mailed out no later than Aug. 24 and that will serve as notification to Georgia Aquarium that its Florida counterpart has achieved tax exempt status. Had the Marineland attraction been denied that status, the property appraiser would have had to notify the parent company before July 1.
Netherton said the town also will lose community redevelopment money because its status has changed from "blighted condition," when Jacoby bought it out of its latest bankruptcy in 2001, to tax exempt.
Plans to invest millions in Marineland over the next few years should offset some of the financial burden on taxpayers, Kimmel said. Additional sales tax revenues will also boost the local economy, he said.
"We feel strongly that this is an add, a benefit to the county," Kimmel said. "By making improvements that will increase the ticket sales, we will spur other business -- secondary and tertiary businesses -- restaurants, hotels and resorts."
He said local contractors and workers would be hired to complete work at the park, such as resealing one of the marine tanks.
Georgia Aquarium also allows Ripple Effects Ecotours to piggyback advertising of its services on the Marineland website as part of its support to Flagler County and businesses here. Ripple Effects launches from an area behind the University of Florida's Whitney Lab, but will move its operations to the marina, where 22 slips are under construction, when it is finished. The marina is slated to open the third week of August.
Other than current renovations, Kimmel declined to discuss possible future projects.
"I haven't seen the project list, but I can't imagine how (any improvements) would be a bad thing," Netherton said. "It's always a good thing to have money spent in the town."
That includes big and small money, Kimmel said. The goal is to draw people, both locally and from across the country, to Marineland the town and to the Dolphin Adventure.
"One of the things that has been interesting to us is the lack-of-awareness factor that it (Marineland) even exists," Kimmel said. "A family from Ohio was visiting while I was in town. The woman grew up here (near Marineland) but had never visited. There is the nostalgia of Marineland. Without (it), would there even be oceanariums today? It's such a unique jewel."