By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
SOUTH DAYTONA - Before there was Sea World, the city laid claim to a different aquatic-themed attraction that drew throngs of tourists visiting Florida.
The bygone attraction known as the Sea Zoo "put South Daytona on the map," said Kay Stanton of the local Historical Society. It was where motorists driving down U.S. 1 in the 1950s came to see alligator wrestling, manatees, sea turtles and motor-driven porpoises that were made to look like they were jumping in and out of a pool.
Former Sea Zoo employees and relatives of the attraction's owners recently reunited to share their stories with the South Daytona Historical Society. They looked at the Sea Zoo, which operated from 1949 to 1961, as the place where they grew up.
"The only thing I remember about going to school was I was always ready to go to the Sea Zoo," said Raymond McQueen, stepson of former Sea Zoo owner Miles S. Bangs. "School was always tough for me because there was somewhere better I couldn't wait to go."
It was a place where tour guides wrestled alligators, children could get up close to alligator pens, and tourists could see high diving sea otters, racing sea lions and the world's largest captive sea cow.
Where the Sea Zoo was on U.S. 1 is bare land, left vacant by the demolition of a bowling alley, and across the street from a SunTrust Bank.
The Sea Zoo was advertised as the "world's only continuous sea circus."
Steven Loughman, a World War I veteran, co-founded the Sea Zoo with Mr. Bangs, a former newspaper owner, under the name "Marine Life Laboratory Exhibit." The name was changed after Marineland of Florida, a similar attraction near St. Augustine, took legal action against them.
Mr. Bangs sold his share in the Sea Zoo to Dr. Perry Sperber, Daytona Beach's first dermatologist, in 1951. Dr. Sperber, a native of Providence, R.I., also owned Bongoland, a tourist attraction in Port Orange in what is today the Sugar Mill Gardens.
Dr. Sperber's son, Perry Sperber, who still lives in the area, recalled spending his childhood playing at the Sea Zoo and taking naps under the gift shop register while his father managed the attraction's operations. Mr. Sperber said his father "liked to spin some tails" to drum up interest in the attraction.
"He had it that the reason he bought the Sea Zoo was his son's love of alligators. When we moved down here, I was three years old and I don't think I had a deep interest in alligators quite at that time," Mr. Sperber said. "... Then as this story progressed, it got a little more outlandish. It ended up being that I was the owner of the Sea Zoo."
The Sea Zoo was a popular destination in its time; it was profiled in Life Magazine and was a filming location for a movie starring Cesar Romero, which also featured Dr. Sperber as an extra. Mr. Sperber said Mr. Loghman was quoted in a newspaper article as saying the Sea Zoo was selling 400 to 500 tickets a day.
But the expansion of U.S. 1 from a two-lane to a four-lane road as well as the development of interstate highways, hurt the Sea Zoo's business in the late 1950s. It closed after it sustained $20,000 in damages from Hurricane Donna in 1960.
While former tour guide Larry "Gator" Suter has fond memories of working at the Sea Zoo, he downplayed the view that some people had that his role as a guide was something remarkable.
"We were only trying to make a living, just doing something," Mr. Suter said.