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bobliocatt

'Miracle' amusement park closing after 41 years

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Posted on Thu, Apr. 15, 2004

'Miracle' amusement park closing after 41 years

For 41 years, the Miracle Strip Amusement Park helped draw visitors from Tallahassee to the row of tacky attractions in Panama City Beach that many people called simply "The Strip."

But on Labor Day, after years of decline that followed the Disney boom in Florida, the amusement park will close.

The closing signals the end of an era. There was a time when 100-mile summer pilgrimages to the Miracle Strip were a must for Tallahassee families and a rite of passage for local teens. It wasn't unusual to see your friends and neighbors there, either visiting the amusement park, playing a miniature golf course or staying at one of the unique motels on the beach.

But that's history.

Miracle Strip owner Billy Lark has sold the park and surrounding land to developers, general manager Buddy Wilkes said.

"It's a sad day," Wilkes said, standing this week beneath dark clouds and shivering in unseasonably cold weather. "It's kind of appropriate that it's so gloomy."

Lark's decision came after several unprofitable summers and at least five years of buyout offers, including one from Six Flags Inc., which owns 39 amusement parks worldwide. The new owners have not disclosed what they plan to do with the property.

The eight-acre park, valued at $1.4 million by the Bay County property appraiser's office, is part of 20 acres that sold for an undisclosed price. Lark has until next April to remove all the buildings and equipment, Wilkes said.

One of the hardest things to do was to tell the staff, he said.

"Some of our full-time people have been here for 25 years," Wilkes said.

About half of the 42 full-time employees will be able to transfer to nearby Shipwreck Island Water Park, which Lark also owns. The rest will receive severance packages.

"It was very somber," Wilkes said. "It's usually a very jovial group, but today there wasn't much dialogue."

The employees understood, though, that things like lawsuits, high taxes and rising fuel costs can plague amusement parks of any size.

"It's very hard to remain competitive," Wilkes said.

Knowing this summer will be its last, Wilkes said he wants to make it a nostalgic one.

"There are eight married couples here who met at the park," Wilkes said. "I'll bet there are lots who had their first date here, too."

Plans also could include a silent auction or sale of memorabilia. Several companies have expressed interest in buying rides and other equipment, Wilkes said. The park could be rebuilt on another site in Panama City Beach, but not under Lark family ownership, Wilkes said.

The sale of the amusement park continues a trend in recent years. Developers and city officials increasingly think Panama City Beach's future will be more prosperous as a destination for families with a lot of money to spend, rather than a haven for students looking for cheap thrills. Many of the small motels and attractions have been sold in recent years to developers eyeing the Gulf-front property for retail space or condominiums.

While the fate of the Miracle Strip property was not announced, Wilkes said a shopping center and condominiums are among the possibilities.

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