Marineland Site Still Awaits Transformation Into Resort

Times Staff Writer

On the high ocean bluffs once crowned by Marineland of the Pacific, you can almost hear the laughter of tens of thousands of vanished children. The children have disappeared into adults, but moldering Marineland still awaits its own, long-promised metamorphosis into a luxury resort.

The old “oceanarium,” as it was called, at the southern end of the Palos Verdes Peninsula was ahead of its time. When it opened in 1954, it was the first true destination amusement park in Southern California, predating Disneyland by a year. Its killer whale, dolphin and sea lion shows prefigured the Sea Worlds of today.

A generation of Southern California children endured the long, inconvenient ride to the remote and spectacular site.


Their journey was over, their fidgeting rewarded, when they finally caught sight of the 320-foot Skytower soaring into the blue ocean-side sky at the park’s entrance. It meant they’d soon be watching the splashy acrobatics of Orky and Corky the killer whales, petting Bubbles the pilot whale (then badgering their parents to buy stuffed toy models of her), and snorkeling the curved, faux-rocky recesses of Baja Reef amid rainbows of tropical fish.

Among those children was James York, now 55, who heads the investment group that bought the property for $28 million nine years ago.

“I don’t remember that much about it, except that it seemed a long way to get here,” York recalled recently.

Today, he said, the 103-acre site is “the largest privately held, commercially zoned property on the Southern California coast, with almost a mile of oceanfront.”

In the year of its 50th birthday, Marineland, which closed in 1987, is barely a suggestion of its former self.

The site of the large complex that housed the whale stadium and underwater feeding shows is now an empty expanse of sandy bluff top pebbled with the droppings of goats, who keep the weeds eaten and the grass clipped.


“The structural integrity of the big tanks depended on being filled with water, so when they were drained, they were no longer structurally sound,” explained York, who keeps a full-time office at the site.

Gone also are the walrus, sea otter, harbor seal, penguin and flamingo pools. The Sea Arena, site of the seal circus and porpoise games, also has disappeared with hardly a trace. Bushy trees now grow in the natural bowl-shaped depression once lined by stadium seats.

Baja Reef still exists, but desiccated vegetation crunches underfoot on the approach to it, and giant twisted palm fronds lie like corpses all around. The curving channel where snorkelers once held sway is dry. Broken pieces of roof tile and other odd detritus have replaced the tropical fish and baby sharks.

Soon after York’s group, York Long Point Associates, acquired the place, the federal government insisted on the demolition of Marineland’s signature Skytower, which had become an aviation hazard. What remains of the tower is a 4-inch-high steel stub about 4 feet in diameter, overlooked by seven scabbed and empty flagpoles that lean at tired angles.

The few structures still standing have been altered and re-altered in accordance with the requirements of Marineland’s fairly robust interim career as a site for military exercises and Hollywood movie shoots.

Three or four times a year, Marines from Camp Pendleton use the site for everything from amphibious landings to ersatz searches for weapons of mass destruction. The heavy beating of military helicopters has replaced the sounds of applause and laughter that were heard at Marineland years ago.


For as many as eight months a year, York said, some sort of filming goes on atop the bluffs. Movies that have been shot there include “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Pearl Harbor,” “The Rock” and “Spider-Man.” Marineland also was the location for the MTV shows “Beach House” and “Singled Out.”

York ticked off the reasons the place is suited for making movies, especially action movies.

“You can land a helicopter anywhere on the property,” he said. “And they don’t need to use a blue screen for special effects because the sky here is essentially a blue screen. And, of course, there’s the actual ocean right there.”

The property offers commanding views of Santa Catalina Island and the nearby coastline. Standing on the roof of the old Marineland restaurant, facing due south to Catalina, York traced an arc from east to west.

“This is one of the few locations, maybe the only one, in California where you can see the sun rise and set over the ocean while standing in the same spot,” he said.

Small wonder that Lowe Enterprises is planning a $250-million resort there. It is to include a 400-room main hotel, flanked by 150 casitas and 32 resort condominiums, as well as a golf training facility and three practice greens.


A previous entrepreneur who had hoped to develop the resort acquired all the necessary governmental approvals. Construction is expected to begin in mid-2005 and be completed in 2007.

By then, all physical remnants of the park will have disappeared, save the old concession stand, which will be converted into a lounge to be called the Lookout Bar, York said.

The existing structure is being retained because it is nearer the ridgeline than current law allows new buildings to be. “It will be the only thing that will remain from old Marineland,” York said.

Well, not the only thing.

Corky and Bubbles, now a couple of formidable dames in their 40s, still perform for audiences at Sea World San Diego, to which they were moved in the dead of night by Sea World’s then-owners, who bought and closed Marineland.

Orky left this earthly fish tank at about age 30 in 1988, but not before siring Orchid, a 15-year-old female who is part of the Sea World San Diego killer whale pod.

The giant concrete whale and pair of dolphins that once were part of the Marineland sign on Palos Verdes Drive South are kept in storage by the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, awaiting reemergence somewhere.


For a long time, however, the most stirring remnants of Marineland will exist in the memories of the erstwhile children who loved the place.

“I lived close enough that when I was in junior high school we could just ride our bikes down, me and my friends,” said Carolynn Petru, Rancho Palos Verdes’ assistant city manager. “I’d just go over and over again. I just loved it.”