Tony Simmons / Online Editor
PANAMA CITY BEACH — The new owners of Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach have invested nearly $1 million in upgrades, renovations and new construction to prepare for the summer season.
“It makes it better for the animals and better for the people working with them,” co-owner Brad Miller said during a recent tour of the facility. “The final product is customers are enjoying themselves here even more.”
Established in 1969, Gulf World is licensed by the federal government as a marine mammal display facility. It serves as the area coordinator for the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network and is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.
Miller and Ron Hardy bought the park in June 2010; they were previous owners and had sold the park in 2005. They said neglect during the five-year span had spurred much of the work they had to perform to get the park up to their standards again. The work is currently about three-quarters complete, they said, and costs so far are about $750,000.
“We saw they had not done some normal maintenance, and we knew immediately what we wanted Gulf World to look like,” Hardy said.
The work extended from the entrance to the exits and from roofs to floors — and below, into the drainage systems. New windows were added to the tropical rainforest building, drains were ripped out and replaced, pools were resurfaced and leaks plugged.
“Every roof had to be replaced or repaired,” Miller said, adding that the roof of the main building cost $120,000. “In the gift shop, there was water leaking from the sea lion stadium floor into the shop; that took three weeks of solid work.”
Landscape timbers had rotted in some areas, said spokeswoman Pam George, and the odor gave visitors the wrong impression about the park. “They started to stink, and people would notice and think you’re not taking care of the animals,” she said.
“Tons of little things” were changed that casual visitors might not have noticed, Miller said, but they stood out to the owners — including repairs to the penguin, sting ray and sea lion exhibits. In addition, the park’s administrative computer systems were upgraded.
A gazebo soon will be constructed at the outdoor grill dining area, providing protection from hot summer sun or rainstorms. An awning is under construction at the entrance, and an exterior paint scheme of ocean waves has tied the buildings together.
“People didn’t realize the complex was so big,” Hardy said.
A drainage pond was cleared. The magic show was upgraded. The laser light show backdrop has been shortened and plans are in place to add a beach façade behind the dolphin performance tank.
“We always wanted more light in the tropical garden,” said Hardy, who mounted a 20-foot ladder last week to stretch a backdrop above the main dolphin tank. “We put in a new set of windows and have twice the light as before. We’ve already seen a difference in the plant growth in there.”