By Nick Dal Porto
Many of us have visited and spent time at Oracle’s campus in Redwood Shores, the future home of our school. But, have you ever stopped to think about what was there before Oracle got there in the early 1990s? The truth may surprise you.
Before the tech company moved in, it was home to Marine World. As you could probably guess, Marine World was an amusement park, the predecessor to the current one in Vallejo, California. Opening its doors in 1968, it was the living embodiment of the hokey and corny environment that we all know and love about theme parks. Originally owned by the American Broadcasting Corporation, the park offered aquatic activities, ranging from boating shows, live orcas and other fish, limited aquariums, etc. As it would turn out, ABC was best to stick to its main job of producing television shows the park went bankrupt in 1972.
However, that would not be the end of the resilient Marine World. Wealthy animal trainer, Ralph Helfer, took a liking to the property and purchased the failing park. Because Helfer enjoyed the continent of Africa and its animals, he renamed the park Marine World/Africa USA and commenced renovations, adding a extensive wildland area featuring wildlife and animals of African origin, plus a jungle theater for African-themed shows. This helped revive the park, which continued to operate until it moved to Vallejo in 1986 to become Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.
Although the park seems to be nearly forgotten, one man in particular holds fond memories of the establishment. Paul Jennings grew up right here in the Bay Area, and started working at Marine World/Africa USA when he was 18, the year before it closed. The Dragon went one-on-one with Jennings to discover some of his hidden memories of Marine World.
Q: Did you visit Marine World often as a child? What did you do there? Were there any really fun parts of the park you enjoyed?
I did visit a few times when young. As a child my favorite parts were the large cats and the “Killer Whale” [orca] show, of course.
Q: When did you start working there? How did you come across the job? How old were you?
I was 18 when I started working there, in 1985. I had a good friend who worked there, so he got me the interview. It was my first real job other than odd jobs like lawns and yard work.
Q: What was it like working there? What did you do?
It was pretty amazing working in that kind of environment. Every day was a show. I loved it. I was a tour boat driver. I would drive the big covered rafts full of people and talk about the animals. The crew was one great big family, I had access to so many things the average public did not. I went skiing in the lagoon with the ski show people. I got to handle baby tigers. We regularly had large parties for the staff in the park after hours. It was a lot of fun.
Q: Do you have any good or bad memories of the park that really stand out?
I have a lot of good memories and only one bad one. The bad one was helping the park close down and move across the bay in my second season working there. I would have stayed longer if they had not moved. We had so much fun doing the tours. We would do tours in different accents. We would make up facts about the animals that were completely and obviously untrue and try to sell it like it was fact. We would even race those great big tour boats full of people. Some boats were slower than others and while it was hard to do if you picked the right spot, you could pass a slower boat. One time I passed the slow boat with a new driver, and she panicked and ran up on shore of the rhino enclosure. The rhino came right up to the boat and scared the crap out of the guests. I got in trouble, but it makes a great memory.
Q: Anything else you want to say about Marine World and working there?
That job, out of all the things I have done, had one of the largest impacts on me. I am generally a shy person, but at that job I learned to be just a little less shy and serious and have fun. It prepped me for my current role [working at the corporate offices of Dave and Busters], I think more than any other position.