Located in a quarry originally created to supply the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, the Theater of the Sea is one of the oldest marine aquarium attractions in Florida.
Theater of the Sea opened in 1946 at the beginning of Florida tourism’s golden age. It’s located on Windley Key in the village of Islamorada in the middle Keys.
Nearly 40 years earlier, Windley Key was a significantly different place. In the midst of one of Florida’s largest building projects, the laborers of the Overseas Railroad used what was a small group of rocky islands to carve out an enormous amount of ancient coral stone. While doing so, they took the opportunity to fill in the spaces between the islands with leftover spoil from the construction. And so, modern Windley Key was born.
P. F. “Bud” and Martha McKenney discovered the large and deep quarries on Windley Key which had filled with seawater over the years, leased the land and moved to the area to develop a marine park. Unfortunately, this was in 1941 and World War II caused a significant delay in their work.
But after WWII ,the McKenney’s returned and built their attraction. Milton Santini (a fisherman who would later create his own Keys’ dolphin attraction) was asked to deliver four dolphins to the new park.
Theater of the Sea did well during the Golden Age, but was nearly destroyed when Hurricane Donna rolled through in 1960. The McKenney’s rebuilt and expanded and the park was back to being successful in a relatively short amount of the time.
As time passed, more attractions were developed, including a a “bottomless” boat that had a hole in the middle of it where dolphins would perform for people on the boat. In the 1980s, Bud McKenney passed away and Martha retired from management. Their children took over operations.
The park continues to welcome visitors and like most of Florida’s other marine aquariums, offers up close and personal tours and experiences between visitors and its animals.