Historic City Memories: Marco Polo Park

Ever wonder how some place could go out of business despite the fact that you always enjoyed it?

It is hard for me to remember everything from my high school years in St Augustine — things like gasoline that only cost 40 cents a gallon, and a time before Intel had introduced the world to the first microprocessor.

I remember Walt Disney World’s grand opening in October 1971 and the soon-to-come slow down, and eventual shut down, of attractions that I had enjoyed growing up here.

Everything is relative, I guess. Our world was certainly smaller. Gas is over $4 a gallon now; yet we think nothing of driving to Jacksonville or Palm Coast, when, in the 1970’s, we would have considered that a l-o-n-g trip.

South Old Dixie Highway runs from US-1 at Korona, south of Bunnell, east to the Bulow Creek State Park. It intersects Interstate 95; but, in 1971, you could only exit the Interstate if you were heading in one direction.

Despite the awkward location, and grueling 45-minute drive from St Augustine, I used to enjoy Marco Polo Park when it opened that same year.

Near the Flagler – Volusia County line, Marco Polo Park was a theme park based on Marco Polo’s legendary travels through Europe and the Far East. I never got what the owners were thinking here in the middle of all our Spanish history, but it was fun nonetheless.

The park featured rides, puppet shows that had a big Muppet version of Kubla Kahn, multimedia shows, and other attractions. The ponds were inhabited by the meanest snapping turtles imaginable.

“Like Marco Polo himself, you will be wonderstruck at the authentic Oriental splendor as you journey into the exotic four worlds of the Far East,” read the brochure, which was available to “travelers” under a Venetian-style arch at the ticket booths and park’s main entrance.

Before there was an EPCOT, Marco Polo Park visitors could embark on a voyage from Venice; then on to Turkey, India, China and Japan.

Two passenger cars, pulled by a steam locomotive, encircled the park. An aerial gondola ride, notorious for causing four deaths, lifted explorers between the exhibits of the different lands.

Featured rides in Turkey included bumper car rides for kids; with another for adults, as well as a “flying chairs” ride. In India, the “log flume ride” was the feature attraction. Younger kids could enjoy a “flying elephant ride”. There was a “spinning tea cup ride” in China and a giant “Ferris wheel” in Japan. There were also replica Model “T” cars that you could steer along the trails of Venice.

Paul Revere and the Raiders used to perform in the park; although by 1975, it was Paul Revere and whoever he could find to back him up. He played an electronic organ with the front grill of a Ford Edsel attached to it.

The Japanese section included gardens that covered about 500 of the park’s 5,000 acres. It included a replica of a Japanese fishing village, a Japanese botanical garden and a mile long waterway spanned by oriental bridges. Eighteen sampans, made of teakwood imported from Japan, carried visitors along the waterway. Two restaurants served tempura-style dishes. There were also a number of souvenir shops, which sold a variety of Japanese-themed items.

The park would close during the “off season” and the electrical house was subject to invasions of bats. Apparently, in 1975, they did enough damage to be responsible for two fires that ravaged the property — just eight days apart. Marco Polo Park closed; then was renamed “Passport to Fun World” which briefly reopened that year.

Going the way of Six Gun Territory in Silver Springs, and Gatorland near the St Augustine Airport, Marco Polo Park closed for good in 1976. The remaining equipment from the park was sold at auction on March 14, 1978, according to published reports.

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