Welcome to my personal memories of one of the best family spots on the beach...
Miracle Strip Amusement Park.
Opened 1963 - Closed 2004
Growing up only two hours away from this little amusement park by the sea; I spent many summer weekends treading the paved avenues, and riding rides until my legs gelatinized. "What kind of rides?" you ask. Lets take a look.
First we have...
The Starliner was the first ride you saw driving up to the park. This roller coaster was first opened to the public in 1963 and, at the time, was the only ride in the park. Having grown up in Panama City, my dad was in the first group of paying customers to ride the Starliner. He used to tell my sister and me about it when we were little, so on my first ride I was a very excited 8 year old to be aboard a ride that I had memories of even before I had seen it.
The Starliner was your typical "out and back" coaster. For those of you who don't know what that is, it means the return track runs parallel to the outbound track; which is a good way to have a lot of track with a small footprint. It was the first out and back created by roller coaster legend John Allen. If you've been to a major theme park, then you've probably ridden one of his coasters. But just because it was typical didn't mean that it was boring. That coaster was one of my favorite rides in the park, and every time I hear the words "roller coaster" images of that white and red track flash through my mind.
Here is the first drop
This was at the bottom of the third drop
Right after you entered the dragons mouth, and it became pitch dark, there was a little bunny hop that caught most first time riders by surprise. Having your butt come out of the seat when you can't see your hand in front of your face has that effect on people. Once you left the tunnel, there was a banking turn that sent you back along a string of small bunny hops, which were good for a little more separation of booty and seat cushion. The whole ride took 60 seconds. After the park was shut down in '04 the Starliner was sold to Cypress Gardens in Winterhaven Florida. So, there is still a chance I may get to ride her one more time. Although, I can't imagine it being near as fun out of the setting I learned to love her in.
The next ride up was the coolest in the park...literally
The Abominable Sno'man
Now, when I say it was literally the coolest ride, that has nothing to do with the fun factor, and everything to do with AIR CONDITIONING! During the heat of the day the longest line in the park could be found in front of the igloo with the big beastie standing guard. The inside was a huge relief from the hot humid Florida weather, and fortunately the ride inside was a blast to boot. This ride is actually one of three "flat rides" that you can find at any county fair, that the designers of the park decided to give a little twist by placing them in domes. What ride lay hidden in such icy comfort? A run of the mill Scrambler. Only with the dry ice smoke, strobe lighting, mirrored walls, and really loud fast music, "run of the mill" really is not a good description. To top of the "cool" factor the lighting was all icy blue, so the effect was really great, especially when they turned on the disco ball.
With an Igloo for the dome of one flat ride, it stands to reason the designers would put this in the park as well...
The Dante's Inferno
Ok, so they didn't have the heat blasting inside this ride. It just looked really hot on the outside with the flames coming up around the bottom and Satan saying ahh. This ride was my next favorite, after the Starliner of course. Behind the burning eyes and gaping mouth of all that is evil lay a Chance Trabant. Don't know what that is? Then here is a pic of one outside of a dome.
As you can see, the ride lifts up at a 45 degree angle. Inside the dome, the lighting package made the most of the fact your head was only about 5 feet from the ceiling. The dome was speckled with round lights of every size you could think of that would pulse on and off with the beat of whatever the DJ/operator had pumping through the speakers. (yeah, all of the dome rides had insanely loud music) If you had an operator that knew what he/she was doing, they would kill all of the lights until the ride was at full tilt. The effect was wicked when the lights would suddenly come to life and you realized that you could probably shave your head just by standing up.
One of the things I haven't mentioned yet, is that most of the rides in the park ran both forward and backward. This meant that the ride times were well known for being long by amusement park standards. You definitely got what your money's worth out of the rides. If you had an experienced operator they would also speed the ride up in correspondence to how much you screamed.
The next ride is the last of the domed rides.
The Dungeon was my least favorite of the domed rides, but a good bit of my fondest memories are of that ride. That's because it was one of my mom's favorites, and every time I see a Tilt-a-Whirl (yeah, that's the ride inside) I can hear her laugh and see her smile. I can hear the question, and no, she's not passed away. They are just really happy memories for me. The cars on the Tilt-a-Whirl were painted black with a spider web theme. What else can I say...it was a Tilt-a-Whirl. Like the other enclosed rides, there was loud music, great lighting effects, and most of the time a fun operator on the loud speaker asking everyone to scream for them.
At sunset I always made my way to the south end of the park to take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
Why at sunset? Because, when you were at the top of the wheel you could see across the street, and out over the ocean. There is nothing like the ocean at sunset. The loading sequence of the wheel guaranteed you would get thirty seconds to a minute stopped at the very top. The mental picture that generally comes to mind when I think of an "ocean view" is of a particularly sweet sunset that I saw on one of my last visits to the park. One little band of pink and purple clouds snaking out towards the horizon, with snow white sand in the foreground. For those who have never been to the Florida beaches, the sand looks like powdered sugar.
Those are just the highlight rides from my memories. There are many more rides in the park, totaling 30 or so. I'm sure there are some of you reading this that have been there, and know what I'm leaving out, but the rides themselves aren't the important thing. It was the park itself that I miss the most. Memories like celebrating my 13th birthday from opening to closing, and my entire youth group storming the place one summer after washing cars for the cash, are what make the park sparkle on the stage of my mind.
In the end of the parks life, visitors were dwindling. Panama City had ceased to be a place for families to drive to on the weekend for a romp on the beach, and more of a place for spring break teens looking for booze and loose inhibitions. The majority of the families on the beach now are the wealthy who can afford any of the thousands of condos that have sprouted all along the beach. The 2004 season was the last for Miracle Strip. The land has been sold to a company that is planning to put even more condos on the beach, the price range of their units beginning at $650 going up to $900k.
But, on the bright side Miracle Strip's sister park Shipwreck Island is still open and doing well. My family rarely went to Panama City without visiting that park as well...but that’s another article.