A Morning At Marineland

By www.niagarafallsreview.ca/author/john-law, Niagara Falls Review

Thursday, July 24, 2014 5:03:04 EDT PM

It had been 24 years since I last paid admission to visit Marineland. Just a few months after I moved to Niagara Falls.

Since then, things at the park have been…well, interesting. Protests. Lawsuits. Belugas. At least one less killer whale. New rides. Announcements of stuff we still haven’t seen. The one constant is owner John Holer, who opened the park in 1961 with $2,000, two water tanks and three sea lions, and went on to build a tourism empire.

In the process, becoming one of the most successful and most polarizing figures in Niagara Falls.

One other thing is different: TripAdvisor, which was unheard of back in 1990. A way for visitors to instantly rate their impressions of the park before they even leave the parking lot, for the world to see. This is what has intrigued me lately, and what finally brought me back to the ticket booth last Tuesday morning.

Of 657 reviews posted for Marineland, 123 are Excellent, 180 are Very Good and a whopping 354 fall under the Average, Poor or Terrible categories. Anyone can post whatever they want on TripAdvisor, but even assuming some reviews are fake, that’s an abnormally large number of people ripping one of the city’s biggest attractions.

Marineland’s critics say the backlash is long overdue. Marineland supporters feel the park is unfairly criticized and is an important part of the local economy.

On a Tuesday morning (July 15, 9:39 a.m.), I decided to see for myself. No protests, no press releases, no phone call letting them know I was coming. Put some cotton candy in my hand and I was Joe Tourist for the day.

I don’t do this nearly enough in Niagara Falls. As I approached the ticket booth, I realized why.

$42.95 admission. With tax, $48.53. Kids are $35.95. For a family of four, that would be about $200.

For not the first time this day, I muttered “you have got to be kidding me.”

Once that shock wears off, anger sets in. For that price, EVERYTHING better be open. Every ride, every store, every restaurant. I had no intention of partaking in any of them, but when you pay nearly $50, ‘closed’ signs don’t cut it. It’s the principle!

There was no indication upon entry that anything was closed or that the admission did not cover all activities.

Inside, I headed towards the deer park, and immediately felt like I was in The Walking Dead. No one around. Like, anywhere. It would be understandable in October, but this was Niagara Falls in the thick of summer. For months I’d been hearing about a steep decline in attendance at Marineland. Now I was seeing it firsthand, and it was…weird.

On my way to the Aquarium Dome I passed my first gift shop – closed. Here we go.

Inside the small aquarium, the tone was set. It felt old and dingy. One deep-diving seal kept nudging his own feces at the bottom of the tank. Nearby, the Hungry Lion food court (also closed) had a sign straight out of 1972. I haven’t seen that font since my mom was wearing bell bottoms.

In the distance, I could hear the familiar clack-clack of Dragon Mountain – one of the longest steel roller coasters in the world when it was built in 1983.

The first ride I saw go by had two people on it. The next, four. The next had one guy on it. He still had his hands in the air like he just didn’t care.

Near the coaster are the red deer, elk and buffalo areas, which I still don’t understand. The place is called Marineland. No fisherman ever caught an elk in his net.

More confusing is Bear Country, where they sit in slumped anticipation of treat time. That’s when an employee opens the Bear Feed shack, and they instinctively wander to the same spot at water’s edge. The spot visitors generally throw the cone of snacks they just spent $2.50 on.

Next to the bears, the Topple Tower ride was closed. So was Magic Experience. That's three of the park's 10 rides (17 including the kiddie section) not operating. A mom and her daughter were relieved to see Kandu’s Twister open. They rode it by themselves.

I hadn’t even gotten into the heart of the park yet, and it was obvious something was amiss here. An amusement park – especially one of Marineland’s stature – isn’t supposed to feel this detached. This sad.

Then you get to Arctic Cove and the anger returns. You want to touch the belugas? That’ll be $8.75. On top of the $48.53 you spent to get in here. What’s that, all three of your kids want to touch the belugas? Don’t bother putting your wallet away.

On the way to King Waldorf Stadium to catch the live show you’ll pass Hurricane Cove – closed, full of cobwebs and weeds. The gears from the ride lay on the ground near the entrance.

Why? What purpose does it serve letting visitors see this?

The live show is what it is – a circus-like ‘performance’ with a bland script and seals doing what they would in the wild. You know, standing on one flipper for rewards.

“They really do deserve our admiration and respect,” said the announcer, non-ironically, “and we’re proud to share them with you today.”

I left halfway through. Then my jaw dropped.

Twelve years ago, I did a story on Holer’s plans to build a 20-acre aquarium complex which would have four domes with separate themes (Terrors of the Sea, Friends of the Sea, etc.) A billboard of the artist’s rendering was still standing there (since removed), with the heading ‘Future Development.’ If you visited the park in 2002, you'd have seen this same sign in 2014.

There was one last, obligatory thing to do: Go see Kiska. The only captive killer whale in Canada. I had seen countless photos and videos of her through the years, always the same. Always disheartening. She is not part of the live show, and unlike the beluga whales, she cannot be touched by visitors. In fact, a park employee reminds you to stay three feet back from her tank.

Kiska doesn’t even seem real. She may as well be a black and white robot swimming methodically in circles in her tiny tank. Why is she here? What purpose does it serve? I watched her and felt an instant lump in my throat. An animal this beautiful and awe-inspiring shouldn’t be reduced to such a solitary life. It just can’t.

I left the park in a daze. I learned nothing, I felt nothing.

”Do you need a stamp to re-enter?,” the lady asked as I exited.

“No thanks,” I replied. Three hours was plenty.

The good? You'll walk a lot. There's plenty of green space. Parking's still free.

It was the park I remembered 24 years ago, which is part of the problem. It should be better than this by now. Bigger. It should be tapping into the awesome potential Holer has at his disposal – 1,000 acres and an abundance of tourists to draw from.

It can be one of the largest theme parks in North America, which is all the more reason for John Holer to finally sell it. So we can see it happen. Under a new guise, a new theme. I get the feeling Holer is only holding on for the fight, to outlast his critics.

He has nothing left to prove. Except the ability to walk away and be happy with a legendary career.

Marineland has had a remarkable run, but the age spots are showing. The holes are getting harder to plug. It symbolized the old Niagara Falls, but it can also symbolize the new. One without captive animals, without weekly protests, without all the hand-wringing.

In other words, a park everyone loves. Everyone.