Panama City Beach Attractions –A Nostalgic Trip into the Past

For those who’ve been visiting, or living in, Panama City for many years, this should be an enjoyable jaunt down memory lane. I have lived in Panama City since 1976 and, of course, have seen many changes.  I hope I can provide a small “Blast from the Past” for everyone!

Florida became a United States territory in 1821 when United States Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Spanish Minister Luis de Onis formed the Adams-Onis treaty. General Andrew Jackson was Florida’s first territorial governor and communities were established at St. Andrews (now Panama City), Austerlitz (now Parker) and Econfina. Skipping ahead, Panama City was founded on May 2nd, 1936 and was named, according to most documents, because it was the closest American port to the newly constructed Panama Canal.

Old Town, St. Andrews, located along what is now Beach Drive in Panama City, was a popular antebellum beach resort. Visitor activities included swimming, a stroll on the beach and a promenade, in their finest clothes, along a wooden pier extending out into the St. Andrews Bay.

During the Civil War, St. Andrews’ mainstay was to manufacture salt needed to preserve food, after President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade of all southern ports halting the import of the much needed salt.  After the war, the fishing industry developed and, over time, became one of the main tourist attractions of the Panama City area. Today, visitors have hundreds of choices of chartered fishing trips and many piers and shores from which to fish.

Panama City Beach remained hidden for many years because there were no roads and could only be accessed by water.  In the early 1930’s, US Highway 98 was built, but the route was too far from the beach, so businessman Gideon Thomas had shells hauled from Apalachicola to pave a road to the beaches. Hence, the birth of Thomas Drive!  Panama City Beach opened to the public on May 2, 1936 and the first major tourist draw, Long Beach Resort was built in the early 1940’s. The resort consisted of a small amusement park, a bathing beach and “The Hangout”, a snack bar with a dance floor. The Hangout was a favorite among the youth. The Hangout was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975.

The famous Snake-A-Torium reared its head in 1946 becoming one of Panama City Beach’s first independent attractions. Although the Snake-A-Torium’s namesake suggested its residents were reptiles, many other animals called this zoo home. On October 1, 1991 Panama City Beach veterinarian Gerrie Barr, along with others, purchased Snake-A-Torium. After renovating the property, Zoo World came to life and remains open today.

In 1954, Fun-Land, an arcade was built. Coin-operated games like skee ball, pinball machines and more. A large gift shop and refreshment stand was added later. Fun-Land is still open today making it the oldest continuously operating attraction in Panama City Beach.

In the early 1960’s, the Wild West was brought to Panama City Beach in the form of Petticoat Junction amusement park, named after a the popular TV series, and Lee Koplin built Tombstone Territory, again named after a popular TV western. Both attractions involved train rides and Wild West themed entertainment.  Koplin also built Skyride, a gondola ride 100 feet high. This was an attraction, back in the day, simply because it was the highest view. The Skyride lost appeal as taller buildings and attractions came into play. Skyride was also put out of commission by Hurricane Eloise. Raccoon River Campground now occupies the land where Tombstone Territory and Skyride once flourished and is owned by Koplin’s daughter.  In 1958 Mr. Koplin also built Goofy Golf, which is still open today. This mini-golf marvel is full of huge concrete fantasy figures and colorful scenery all designed by Koplin. Goofy Golf is also owned and operated by Koplin.

Miracle Strip Amusement Park, built in 1962, is said to have propelled Panama City Beach into its prominent present-day existence. This park surpassed its predecessors by leaps and bounds with the fastest roller coaster in the day, haunted houses and many other rides and attractions. The park was expanded and Shipwreck Island Water Park was opened. The amusement park closed in 2004, but the water park remains as a prominent attraction. The carousel from the park was moved to Pier Park and is still in operation.  In 1965, The Miracle Strip observation tower was built. This futuristic 200 foot tower would provide incredible views to many before it was severely damaged by Hurricane Opal, then demolished in 1995.

1970 saw the opening of the first and only aquarium in Panama City Beach, Gulf World, which still thrives today.

The Rader family opened Ocean Opry in August of 1978. The famous musical family brought many country stars to Panama City Beach to share the stage with them. They had a great 27 year run, then closed their doors 27 years later in August of 2005.  Johnny Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Roy Clark and many others graced the Ocean Opry stage.

The Fabulous Treasure Ship was built in 1978 boasting a 500 seat restaurant with a panoramic view of Grand Lagoon, a gourmet French restaurant named the Top of the Ship, a Disco nightclub appropriately named The Brig, an ice cream parlor, gift shop, open air bar, a plush lounge called The Captain’s Quarters, and many decks to roam and explore. This one-of-a-kind entertainment complex provided tourists with 4 levels of amazing fun and great food. The Treasure Ship saw many transformations over 32 years including the addition of two very popular restaurants, Hook’s Grille and Grog and Captain Crabby’s. The Treasure Ship remained open until April 28th, 2010 when it tragically caught fire and sustained severe damage, and eventually torn down.

Though on the surface, it would seen that Panama City Beach changes as fluidly as the sands of time, at its core, it remains the gem of the Emeral Coast with its crystal white beaches and sapphire blue waters.  And that, my friends, is what keeps it an enduring family favorite vacation destination.