Controversial Florida Theme Park Fights Government-Mandated Closure, Update Given

in Theme Parks

Trainer on orca at Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

The most controversial theme park in Florida isn’t going down without a fight.

Theme park controversies aren’t rare. Over the years, we’ve seen Walt Disney World Resort engage in multiple public spats with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (due in no small part to its opposition of the governor’s “don’t say gay” bill in 2021), as well as SeaWorld battle accusations of animal abuse due to its use of captive marine mammals for entertainment.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

Related: Animal Update – DeSantis Announces Release of Another Animal From Florida Theme Park as Controversy Continues

In 2024, however, one Florida theme park takes the cake for controversy. After years of concerning inspection reports, Miami Seaquarium – a marine theme park first opened in 1955 on the island of Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay – was ordered to close earlier this year by Miami-Dade County, which accused it of violating the terms of its lease.

The terms in question were related to its duty of care to its animal residents. Various damning details have emerged about the park through its prolific USDA reports, including a dolphin found with a nail in its throat, a sea lion living in pain after a critical eye surgery was repeatedly delayed, and tank water ridden with bacteria.

Seals at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava ordered that the park must vacate the premises (for which it has signed a lease through 2044) by April 21 due to this “long and troubling history of violations.” However, nearly one month later, the Miami Seaquarium remains in operation.

Its owner, The Dolphin Company, has also filed a federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade County. Its CEO, Eduardo Albor, released a statement arguing that closing the park would endanger its animal residents.

Sea lion jumps through hoop at Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Kenneth Cole Schneider via Flickr

“Filing this lawsuit against Miami-Dade County is a step we take with heavy hearts but clear minds, driven by our duty to protect our legacy and ensure our ability to continue making positive impacts on marine conservation,” Albor said.

“We stand firm in our belief that with fair treatment and support from Miami-Dade County, we can overcome the current challenges and emerge stronger for the benefit of our community, our staff, and the animals we are dedicated to protecting, just like we do in all our parks.”

This week, the park has provided another update in its fight against permanent closure. According to Islander News, Edwin Gonzalez – Executive Director USA for The Dolphin Company – has issued a letter to Miami-Dade County claiming that it now complies in all concern areas previously raised in USDA inspection reports.

Tokitae killer whale and trainer at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

Its latest inspection, on April 30, allegedly “revealed no non-compliant items, affirming the Seaquarium’s adherence to stringent federal regulations regarding animal welfare and safety.”

The letter, which was accompanied by a copy of the inspection report, adds: “We are pleased the inspection concluded with no non-compliant items noted, affirming our commitment to maintaining the highest standards of animal care and facility management. This achievement reflects the hard work and dedication of our entire team at Miami Seaquarium.”

Miami-Dade County is yet to publicly respond to the Florida theme park. It recently declared that it was prepared to take Miami Seaquarium’s 5,000+ animals – including dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, and sharks – into its custody and identify alternate homes, with possibilities including SeaWorld Orlando, Zoo Tampa, and Zoo Miami.

Dolphins perform at Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo Dasilva via Flickr

Related: Year-Long Takeover – Disney World Announces Closure Date for Location Handed to President

The Dolphin Company and Miami-Dade County previously had an amicable relationship after it took over the struggling park in 2022.

However, the Miami Herald claims that this relationship soured after the death of its resident killer whale, Lolita (AKA Tokitae), who died in her tank in August 2023 – just months after Miami Seaquarium vowed to free her back into her native waters of the Salish Sea.

Miami Seaquarium has been accused of using “fear and intimidation” to stop its employees from sharing information during inspections. It also owes the county over $87,000 in unpaid rent and has reportedly defaulted on bills to several local vendors.

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