Theater of the Sea, located in Islamorda of the Florida Keys was opened to the public in 1946 and celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The former rock quarry, which had helped to feed railroad construction, went bankrupt following a damaging hurricane and the land sold for a mere $800. It was then developed as a tourist attraction. Today, it is a 17-acre marine mammal park that houses dolphins, sea lions, turtles, sharks, lizards and exotic birds. It also offers a snorkeling experience you won’t soon forget and is home to a number of feral cats cared for by the park.
The grounds are certainly beautiful, full of lush tropical foliage and natural lagoons, all of which provide for gorgeous photo opportunities. And the live dolphin, sea lion, and parrot shows are cleverly timed such that visitors are able to move from one to the other without missing anything. Animal trainers for these shows are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, which assists in making these performances entertaining as well as educational. Clearly, they love their jobs as well as the animals. Admission to the park includes all of these shows, as well as access to a small lagoon beach, a guided marine life tour and a short ride on a bottomless boat.
Despite the included attractions, a large number of visitors go for one or more of the many interactive experiences with dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and stingrays. Theater of the Sea provides some of the most varied hands-on programs available at a marine mammal park, including Meet the Dolphin, Wade with the Dolphin, and Swim with the Dolphin (all of which differ in price and experience). There is also Meet the Sea Lion, Paint with the Sea Lion, Feed the Turtle, and Swim with the Rays or the Sharks. Obviously, the sharks are not of a variety that poses a threat. They’re quite docile and small.
The interesting and encouraging aspect of these encounters and the park, in general, is that all animals and marine life are in a natural lagoon environment, as opposed to the kinds of large pools and tanks that other facilities tend to employ. But this makes sense that the park is extra sensitive to its creatures, as the staff is also involved with ecological conservation programs. As a matter of fact, Theater of the Sea was one of the first to develop a synthetic flipper transplant on a sea turtle.
However, given that the encounters are pricey, perhaps even a tad more than a few comparable facilities within the Keys, visitors on a budget or with larger families might want to consider a lesser interactive opportunity, such as getting a photo with a parrot, or perhaps volunteering to assist with the lovable and hammy ‘Wilbur’ during the sea lion show.
Certainly, there are plenty of upsides to Theater of the Sea and there’s no question that it’s a fun and memorable way to spend an afternoon if you are visiting the Florida Keys. But in all fairness and honesty, there are some downsides as well.
For starters, though it’s truly admirable that the park chooses to care for so many feral cats – a well-known issue in the Keys – the byproduct is the undeniable aroma of ‘litter box’ in the gift shop. We applaud the workers for nurturing these animals in need; however, the current setup is truly unfortunate, especially as the shop serves as the park’s entrance and exit so there’s really no escaping it. It makes purchasing park tickets and looking for souvenirs rather unpleasant. Additionally, the cats tend to lounge everywhere, as we discovered when trying to look at a selection of T-shirts with a cat curled on top, and when attempting to look at some jewelry items in the glass case below the cash counter. One of the cats was perched directly on top of the glass case and refused to budge, making it difficult to see much of anything inside the case, as well as difficult to pay.
The tropical backdrop of the park is unquestionably beautiful, but areas within the grounds vividly show signs of being tired, worn, and in need of an upgrade. Paint is chipping or rusting as seen along the fence line of the dolphin show lagoon. A few pathways contain considerable cracking and interlock upheaval that makes toe stubbing a bit of an issue for those in open-toed shoes, and some wood structures are warping due to age and exposure. The entrance to the sea lion show comes to mind. The restrooms suffer similar issues, and the park signage, or lack thereof, isn’t as helpful to visitors as it could be. For a roadside attraction, particularly of this age and constantly exposed to salt air, perhaps this is anticipated and acceptable. But for the price, and given the number of competitors throughout the Keys, one would expect just a little bit more.
Even so, at the end of the day, it won’t be the paint or the warped wood that visitors will remember – it will be the fun and excitement of a day jam-packed with adventure and laughter. And you might even learn a thing or two about marine life because the presentations are not only amusing, they’re educational.
Have a look at Wilbur the sea lion and you’ll see what we mean.