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Miracle Strip Amusement Park | Photo by Jason Koertge, 2009

Miracle Strip Amusement Park

Location Class:
Built: 1963 | Abandoned: 2003
Status: Abandoned

Miracle Strip Amusement Park

Miracle Strip Amusement Park was a theme park in Panama City Beach, Florida that operated from 1963 to 2004. The Starliner roller coaster was the highlight of Miracle Strip Amusement Park. Rollercoasters in general were on the decline after World War II and many doubted the Starliner’s success. To start up the attraction, a group of local businessmen led by James I. Lark Sr., created a partnership. These men were Harry Edwards, Alf Coleman, Bill Parker, Don Bennet, and Julian Bennet. The group pooled together money and began construction on the Starliner in early 1963. Don and Julian Bennet originally owned the land where the coaster was built.

The park opened on Memorial Day weekend of 1963 to immediate popularity and expanded over time as the park’s success grew. In the mid-1960s, Ed Nelson of Birmingham, Alabama, who owned and operated a municipal park called Fair Park, left Birmingham and became involved in the new park. He owned the original arcade machines which he leased out to the park. The park also leased rides from Nelson as well as traveling carnivals.

Eventually, the company paid off its debts and bought out stockholders, and the park came to own the arcade games, rides, and food service. The partnership was eventually dissolved and the park became owned by one family only, the Larks. Miracle Strip Amusement Park was later expanded by creating Shipwreck Island Waterpark directly across the street.

The Starliner rollercoaster
John C. Allen, Renown Rollercoaster Designer

Designed upon the park’s initial conception, The Starliner was Florida’s first rollercoaster, an “out-and-back” wooden coaster designed by nationally renowned John C. Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC).

John C. Allen III was born on May 21, 1907, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Drexel University in Philadelphia, he chose a career in radio and sound amplification. In 1929, he began working for PTC when he was contracted to install a sound system at a funhouse the company was building. Soon he was working full-time for PTC, moving to Holyoke, Massachusetts to operate the Mountain Flyer rollercoaster at Mountain Park in 1934.

Allen moved back to Philadelphia the following year and became PTC’s production manager working under Herbert P. Schmeck, renowned rollercoaster designer and president of PTC at the time. It was under Schmeck’s leadership that the company became the most prominent manufacturer of roller coasters in the United States. He stepped down as president in late 1953, and on January 8, 1954, John Allen became PTC’s new president.

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John C. Allen. 1955

In 1955, Allen began designing rollercoasters, his first being a junior coaster. Three of his junior coaster designs were built by 1956 including the Sea Dragon which still operates at the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio. Although he kept designing coasters throughout the 1950s, the company’s main focus was marketing kiddie rides in response to the public’s declining interest in rollercoasters.

One of Allen’s innovative designs included the Golden Nugget at Hunt’s Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey, a dark ride/rollercoaster hybrid. It was built three stories high with the top floor giving riders a mine car ride through the “desert” featuring western theme pieces designed by Bill Tracy through his Amusement Display company. It opened in 1960, operated until 1999, and stood as a WIldwood landmark until 2009 when it was demolished. Knoebels’ Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania purchased the Golden Nugget track and trains and rebuilt the ride, reopening it as the Black Diamond on October 8, 2011.

In 1971, John Allen stepped down as president of PTC but remained the company’s head designer. When the amusement industry began to expand, he designed over two dozen wooden rollercoasters, thirteen of which remain in operation to his day. Many attribute Allen’s contributions to the industry to the “Coaster Boom’ of the 1970s which reignited the public’s interest in wooden coasters. He died on August 17, 1979.

John C. Allen
John C. Allen
Vincent “Val” Valentine, Legendary Artist

Another designer who helped Miracle Strip Amusement Park achieve success was artist Vincent “Val” Valentine. His contributions to the park included “The Haunted Castle,” an old-fashioned dark ride with two passenger cars that bumped along dark corridors; The Abominable Snowman, a dome that housed a typical Eli Scrambler ride, but with atypical strobe lighting and a pounding sound system; and “Dante’s Inferno,” featuring another dome housing a Chance Trabant.

Vincent E. “Val” Valetine Jr. was born on January 27, 1917, in New York City, the son of Olive and Vincent E. Valentine Sr. Val graduated from Cooper Union University of Art and Engineering in New York and began his career working with Fleischer Studio in Miami on the original, full-length animated feature, ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ Fleischer Studio also produced ‘Popeye’ and ‘Betty Boop’ among other cartoon characters. Returning to New York, Val illustrated the original storyline for ‘Casper, the Friendly Ghost’ and is considered by many as the original creator of Casper.

During World War II, Val worked for the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation whose product portfolio expanded during the war from aerial photography equipment to include machine gun cameras, x-ray cameras, radar cameras, gun synchronizers, and radio compasses.

jungle land volcano
The Jungle Land volcano. Panama City News Herald

After the war, he worked at several Florida tourist attractions, including Silver Springs in Ocala where he became acquainted with Ross Allen, the famed herpetologist. In 1963, Allen opened a satellite operation of his highly successful “Ross Allen’s Jungle Shows” on the corner adjacent to Miracle Strip Amusement Park. By the end of the first season, Allen was struggling to pay the rent on the new location. Val saw potential in the struggling zoo, bought it from Allen in 1965, and reopened the park as “Jungle Land.”

Jungle Land featured a gigantic smoking volcano and a huge waterfall. Visitors would step into the cavernous volcano and would come out into a tropical habitat with birds, reptiles, and other exotic creatures.

It was also around this time that he attracted the attention of the owners of Miracle Strip Amusement Park. Val was hired as the park’s art director and head designer and was involved in the park’s construction from beginning to end. He later was instrumental in the design and construction of Shipwreck Water Park with the centerpiece being an old shipwreck attraction that has remained at the park to this day. After a long and successful career spanning several decades, Val passed away on July 29, 2015, at the age of 98.

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Vincent “Val” Valentine alongside associates in front of “Dante’s Inferno” during its construction.
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Dante’s Inferno. Panama City News Herald
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Dante’s Inferno
abominable snowman
The Abominable Snowman. Panama City News Herald


The park had been struggling for several years in the post-9/11 tourism slump. In 2003, it was announced that the park would close the following year due to a lack of public interest, loss of generating income, and increased expenses to keep the vintage rides maintained and operating. Most of these rides were sold off to other amusement parks or private collectors. The structures and rides that never found a new home were demolished.

The Starliner was broken down and relocated to Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven. On November 10, 2008, the owners announced the temporary closure of Cypress Gardens, which was shut down on November 17th. The park would reopen on March 28, 2009, but none of the rides would operate again, including Starliner. Cypress Gardens permanently closed down on September 23, 2009. On October 15, 2011, the park reopened as Legoland Florida, and the rides were re-branded to fit in with the Legoland theme. The Starliner did not fit the theme and was instead put into storage.

Miracle Strip Amusement Park’s Revival

Pier Park opened in 2008 located down the street where Miracle Strip Amusement Park once stood, featuring open-air dining, entertainment, and a shopping mall. Teddy Meeks, a wholesale jeweler, sought to put a carousel in Pier Park. He found not only a carousel but the original one built in 1916 which had been in storage on the former park property since 2004.

After the success of the carousel, the owners of Pier Park approached Meeks with the idea of adding a Ferris wheel. He looked for the park’s original Ferris wheel which he found out was moved to Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was not for sale. Deciding on the next best thing, Meeks found an exact make and model of the ride in California. Soon after, the last two remaining rides from the Miracle Strip property, a 1985 Zamperalla Balloon Race and a 1952 Allen Herschell Red Baron plane ride, were bought and added to Pier Park.

In October 2010, it was reported that Teddy and Jenny Meeks and two other partners had bought the Starliner roller coaster for $2 million and started rebuilding efforts. Other sources though reported that the Starliner was not purchased and instead was kept in storage in Palmetto, Florida, and owned by Ridewerks, an amusement park ride supplier.

Miracle Strip at Pier Park opened on April 18, 2014, on a larger 14-acre tract of land, featuring new rides, games, and food vendors. Less than a year later, the park had closed down. Many of the rides were permanently moved to Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park. Although the Starliner will likely never be ridden again, Lake Winnepesaukah does feature the Cannon Ball, a wooden rollercoaster designed by John C. Allen and constructed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company.

Miracle Strip Amusement Park postcard

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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