Flagler County Historical Society

Introduction

Marco Polo Park: The Short-Lived Local Theme Park

The park featured an Oriental theme based on the exotic travels of Marco Polo from his native Venice through the lands of Turkey, India, China and Japan.

Marco Polo Park: The Short-Lived Local Theme Park

Back in the 1970s, there was a fairly large local theme park, which was built on 5000 acres, located off of I-95’s exit 278 on the Flagler-Volusia County line in Bunnell called Marco Polo Park (Figure 1). The park featured an Oriental theme based on the exotic travels of Marco Polo1 from his native Venice through the lands of Turkey, India, China, and Japan. The park featured various rides, puppet shows, movies, live music, internationally themed restaurants, and other touristy entertainment.

Figure 1 - A 1970s Marco Polo Park Poster Highlighting the Family-Friendly and Oriental Theme of the Park (Source: Florida-Backroads-Travel.com).
Figure 1 – A 1970s Marco Polo Park Poster Highlighting the Family-Friendly and Oriental Theme of the Park (Source: Florida-Backroads-Travel.com).

The park opened with sizeable ballyhoo including television commercials that promised “the greatest adventure of your life.” A brochure was available to visitors at the entrance that characterized the park’s imaginable mystic: “Like Marco Polo himself, you will be wonderstruck at the authentic Oriental splendor of your personal voyage of discovery as you journey into the exotic four worlds of the Far East — Turkey, India, China, Japan, and beautiful Venice, your port of embarkation.” These promotions were obviously overemphasized and unsuccessful as the park proved to be unprofitable and short-lived.

The first phase of the park, the Japanese gardens, opened on December 28, 1970. The second phase was opened in May 1972 and included a petting zoo and the themed sections of Venice, Turkey, India, and China. The park temporarily closed in early 1975 after two suspicious fires caused severe damage. Later in 1975, the park reopened under the name of Passport to Fun World with a similar world travel theme but shortly following closed for good in 1976.

During the time the park was open Old Dixie Highway was even changed to Marco Polo Boulevard (in the park’s general area) but has since been changed back.

The Vision and Planning of Marco Polo Park

Figure 2 – Photograph of O.L. “Jack” White (Source: Jack White [O.L. “Jack” White’s grandson]).
Figure 2 – Photograph of O.L. “Jack” White (Source: Jack White [O.L. “Jack” White’s grandson]).

In the late 1960s, O.L. “Jack” White2 (Figure 2) was the president of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce and later served as the president of the board of directors for Marco Polo Park, Inc. White, along with 28 stockholders, began to plan for the development of a park with a theme of adventure that was estimated to cost about $12 million.

An executive memo report3 compiled for Marco Polo Park’s board of directors dated September 2, 1970, stated that “within the last two generations leisure has ceased to be a problem of the affluent alone and has become more and more a problem of everyone… yet this very ambiguity creates a market for efficient supplies of entertainment such as never before been known.” I personally never have known leisure to be a problem? Nevertheless, this favorable prediction of the entertainment potential in Florida along with the new Disney World theme park, which they intended to compete with, steered investor interest in Marco Polo Park. These visionaries believed that people traveling back and forth to Disney World driving on I-95 would most likely stop at nearby Marco Polo Park to extend their vacations or satisfy their curiosities.

An interesting side note to the plans for Marco Polo Park was that the original investors were told that Roy Rogers4 was interested in building an amusement park near Daytona Beach called Western World. The investors brought Rogers to the area to discuss the Marco Polo Park idea, but it turned out he was not interested in investing in the park. He did offer to lend his name to the business deal. Obviously, Rogers’ name was not used in relation to Marco Polo Park, and his Western World amusement park concept never got off the ground either.

Figure 5 – An artist’s conception of a full sized tall ship and luxury passenger liner exhibit (possibly the RMS Titanic) – circa 1967 (Source: Flagler County Historical Society).
Figure 5 – An artist’s conception of a full-sized tall ship and luxury passenger liner exhibit (possibly the RMS Titanic) – circa 1967 (Source: Flagler County Historical Society).

In the planning stages, the vision of the park had some lavish and expensive concepts. The park was originally planned to include the world’s largest conservatory complex called the Climatron (Figures 3 and 4). The Climatron was estimated to cost $8 million to construct and was proposed to open in the autumn of 1968. It was designed to be a family recreation center with diverse horticultural exhibits ranging from the regions of the Arctic to the Equator. Each exhibit would occupy a climatically controlled floor of the complex and would simulate the native environment of the region’s trees, flowers, and plants. The circular complex was envisioned to have glass walls 12 stories high with a 90-foot waterfall and flowing waterways throughout.

Another idea, found on an artist’s conception drawing, shows a ship exhibit with what appears to be a life-sized facade of the famous ill-fated luxury passenger liner RMS Titanic5 (Figure 5). Although very unique and interesting the Climatron and the ship exhibit were never built, which was most likely due to their enormous construction and ongoing maintenance costs.

The Park’s Sections

There were five sections to the park: Venice, Turkey, India, China, and Japan. A suspended gondola system called the Sky Ride (Figure 6) connected the park’s sections and served as an overhead passenger ride that provided aerial views. A narrow-gauge railroad called The Orient Express (Figure 7) had a steam engine with four-passenger cars and traveled the park’s perimeter.

Venice

The main entrance to the park was at the Venice section through a Venetian-style entrance arch (Figure 8). Small replica Model T cars provided rides that could be steered through the woods and trails of the Venice section along a guided track.

Figure 8 - Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard - Marco Polo greeting guests at entrance plaza (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Figure 8 – Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard – Marco Polo greeting guests at entrance plaza (Source: Author’s personal collection).

Turkey

Figure 9  – Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard –The exciting Bamboo Chute in the India section.
Figure 9 – Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard –The exciting Bamboo Chute in the India section.

The Turkey section included a Flying Chairs ride, a Spinning Turban ride that rotated at high speeds and by centrifugal force and a Twin Bumper Cars ride (one was for adults and the other for children).

India

The India section included a Log Flume (Bamboo Chute) ride (Figure 9) and a Flying Elephant ride (Figure 10).

China

The China section included a Spinning Tea Cup ride and a Chinese boat ride.

Figure 10  – Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard – The Flying Elephant Ride was a favorite with the children (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Figure 10 – Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard – The Flying Elephant Ride was a favorite with the children (Source: Author’s personal collection).

Japan

The Japan section was about 500 acres in size and included an 82 foot high Ferris wheel with spinning gondolas (Figure 11), a lagoon, a replica of a Japanese fishing village, a Japanese botanical gardens area and a mile-long waterway with several ornate Oriental bridges. A group of authentic Japanese entertainers was brought in from Japan to perform at various shows. There were 18 teakwood sampans6 imported from Japan that transported park visitors along the waterways. It also included two Japanese restaurants with tempura-style menu items and souvenir shops with Japanese and Oriental-themed items.

Figure 11 - Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard - Beautiful lagoon and Oriental Gardens in the Japan section (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Figure 11 – Marco Polo Park 1970s postcard – Beautiful lagoon and Oriental Gardens in the Japan section (Source: Author’s personal collection).

Marco Polo Park’s Demise

There were several factors that led to the closing of Marco Polo Park including an economic recession starting around 1970, the lack of a southbound exit off of I-95 at the time, Disney World competition, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and two suspicious and devastating fires.

Economic Recession

1970 proved to be the highest inflationary year since the Korean War. Prices of food, services and construction costs rose higher in 1971. Additionally, taxes and unemployment increased which added to the economic woes. An economic recession took hold in the early 1970s and limited the spending power of many families.

I-95 Exit Issue

When the park opened there was only a northbound exit off I-95 to access the park. This was cumbersome to visitors traveling south towards Daytona Beach and Disney World as they had to drive to the next exit several miles away. Obviously, many people just drove by and did not visit the park to avoid the inconvenience.

Disney World Competition

The largest factor leading to the park’s closing was the opening of Disney World near Orlando in October 1971. The spectacular size and convenience of this world-class attraction steadily redirected many potential visitors away from Marco Polo Park and its attendance was never able to reach a profitable level.

OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973

In October 1973 members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an oil embargo. During this time the world’s consumption of petroleum was increasing, especially in the United States, and the price of oil rose from $3.00 per barrel to almost $12.00 per barrel in just 6 months. This prompted the cost of gasoline to dramatically increase which prevented many families from traveling. As a result, tourism decreased in the greater Daytona Beach area and particularly at Marco Polo Park.

Suspicious Fires

Two fires, just eight days apart, in February 1975 did significant damage to the Japanese Village which led to its complete razing. It was suspected that bats roosting in the electrical house caused wiring shorts that ignited the fires. Arson is more likely since a suspect was seen fleeing from the area, at the same time as one of the fires started, who actually shot twice in the direction of a security guard.

Passport to Fun World

Later in 1975, the fire damage repairs were completed, a new bandstand with an American theme was built as a replacement attraction for the Japanese Village and a new 40 horse carousel ride was added. The park was then reopened under the new management of Ozarks Dogpatch USA with a new name of Passport to Fun World.

The Park’s Permanent Closing

Unfortunately, even with new management and a new name the park quickly proved to be unprofitable and in 1976 it was closed again, but this time its closing was permanent.

There are no remnants of the park’s existence today. Most of its property was auctioned off and relocated in 1978. The remaining property: buildings, tracks, and other structures were removed and the Plantation Bay Golf and Country Club community was developed and now occupies the land where the park once stood.

Summary

Marco Polo Park/Passport to Fun World was not the only Florida theme park to go out of business in the 1970s. Several other theme parks vanished as well including Wonderland Park, Titusville (closed in 1973), Pirates World, Dania (closed in 1975) and The Aquatarium [also known as Shark World], St. Pete Beach (closed in 1977). It appears that some of these parks, but probably not Marco Polo Park, might have survived through the economic recession and other challenges of the 1970s, but the massive nearby Disney World attractions were simply too much competition for these smaller parks to endure. O.L. “Jack” White summed it up quite elegantly as he said, “…I learned one important lesson – you can’t compete with the mouse (Mickey)…”

End Notes

1 Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant and traveler. In 1269, along with his father Niccolo, and uncle Maffeo, embarked on a 24-year journey throughout Asia. When they returned to Venice Marco was imprisoned and dictated his stories to a cellmate before being released in 1299. A book known as The Travels of Marco Polo was released in 1300. This book introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China and influenced European cartography and other adventurers and travelers including Christopher Columbus.

2 Oscar Leron O.L. “Jack” White (July 30, 1915 – February 3, 2003) was a real estate developer responsible for 40 motels and condominiums in the Daytona Beach area. He earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee and was involved in several civic organizations including the Daytona Beach Civil Service Board and the Racing and Recreational Facilities Commission. He also served as president of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce and the chairman of the board of directors for Marco Polo Park, Inc.

3 The report contains background information of the recreation industry and the Florida tourism trade of the 1960s into early 1970 and offers support and favorable projections for a profitable and popular Marco Polo Park. (Source: Flagler County Historical Society.)

4 Roy Rogers (November 5, 1911 – July 6, 1998) was born Leonard Franklin Slye. He was an American singer and cowboy actor and became known as the “King of the Cowboys” after appearing in over 100 movies and numerous radio and television shows.

5 The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that was the largest ship afloat when it departed on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. It collided with an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic Ocean causing the death of more than 1,500 of its 2,224 passengers. It was one of the deadliest, and probably the most famous, of all commercial peacetime maritime disasters in modern history.

6 A sampan is a relatively flat bottomed wooden boat that originated in the Far East. They are used for transportation in coastal areas and rivers and can be used for fishing and permanent habitation as they can be designed with a small sheltered area. They are still in use today in rural areas of Southeast Asia (mainly in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam.)

Sources

“$12 Million Marco Polo Attraction to be Located on Flagler-Volusia Line.” Flagler Tribune. June 29, 1967.

Mikula, Andrew. Park was planned as a Disney contender. Flagler/Palm Coast News-Tribune. April 28, 1993.

Miller, Mike. Marco Polo Park. Florida-Backroads-Travel.com. https://www.florida-backroads- travel.com/marco-polo-park.html (accessed September 12, 2016).

“Night Fires.” Flagler Tribune. February 27, 1975.

Redd, C.J. Historic City Memories: Marco Polo Park. Historiccity.com. https://historiccity.com/2012/staugustine/news/florida/historic-city-memories-marco-polo-park- 24622 (accessed September 12, 2016).

White, Oscar Leron. Daddy said I could: The memoirs of O.L. “Jack” White. Oscar Leron White, 1989.

About the Author

Randy Jaye has been interested in history his entire life which was inspired by growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania surrounded by arguably the nation’s most hallowed historic grounds that include Gettysburg, Valley Forge, and Philadelphia. He earned both a Master’s degree and a Bachelor’s degree at California State University. A career in business systems consulting provides him with extensive travel all around the United States and to various foreign countries where he has been fortunate to meet many interesting people. During these travels, he always makes the time to visit local historic, interesting and scenic sites. He now resides in Flagler Beach, FL and has future plans to write several books related to various aspects of history and behavioral science.

Author: Randy Jaye