By Michael E. Miller
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Heading south on Red Road, the houses get farther and farther apart until they become easy to count, and then I know I'm almost there: Parrot Jungle. The surrounding village of Pinecrest, an affluent, tree-lined community carved out of unincorporated Miami-Dade County five years ago, has kept a lid on development, preferring to zone the area for one-acre residential estates. According to Parrot Jungle's top brass, it was the village's unwillingness to accommodate growth, along with local opposition to special events at the park, that prompted the 65-year-old tourist attraction's impending move to Watson Island, a slab of dredged earth off the MacArthur Causeway between Miami and Miami Beach.
The transplant operation will be accompanied by a face-lift. When Parrot Jungle and Gardens premieres on Watson Island sometime in early 2003 (officials have not announced a specific date), the $47-million project will feature not one but two 1000-seat open-air theaters for bird and wildlife shows, a 500-seat indoor "Terrarium Theater," a 1000-seat banquet hall, and a 3000-square-foot souvenir store dubbed the "Parrot Jungle Emporium."
It'll need all that space. Parrot Jungle's new location, just off Interstate 395, should prove to be a magnet for South Beach-bound tourists, curiosity seekers on shore leave from the ten-story cruise ships docked at the nearby Port of Miami, or folks just wandering over from one of the island's other new additions: a luxury hotel-marina, the Miami Children's Museum, and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. By every objective measure the Watson Island Parrot Jungle and Gardens will be new and improved, bigger and busier.
Except, of course, that it won't be a "jungle" at all. It'll be something else entirely -- a theme park, or in the words of Parrot Jungle general manager Bobbie Ibarra, "an entertainment theme facility," one that in its first year of operation is expected to welcome 700,000 visitors, more than twice the number the old park drew in 2001.
The difference will not be simply one of scale, however, but of orientation. Gone will be the huckster aesthetic -- the lingering scent of eau de hustle -- that made Parrot Jungle and other classic roadside animal attractions so, well, charming. "Initially, the jungle attractions were trying to preserve Florida's natural landscape," explains Tim Hollis, a historian of Southern roadside amusements, "then they went overboard, introducing Polynesian themes and imported animals, things that had nothing to do with Florida." In the narrowest possible sense, perhaps.
On another level these places had everything to do with Florida. The manufactured jungles and canned animalia were quintessentially Miami, first cousins to the exaggerated sales pitches of the region's boom-time developers, who pushed tropical climates and air-conditioning, the freedom of the frontier and the perks of modern living.
Conveying a sense of South Florida as both an exotic locale and a place where nature could be tamed, as a land where anything was possible, these old-school attractions might be the last, best remnants of the particular combination of innocence, cynicism, wonder, and larceny that inspired our little corner of the world.
This species of tourist destination, of course, has been endangered since the early Seventies, when the mother of all animal parks opened in Orlando: Walt Disney World. Few local, independent operations could compete with a world-famous, six-foot-tall talking mouse and a regional economy geared toward funneling visitors to his front door 365 days a year.
Mickey's triumph was economic and cultural. The Magic Kingdom, mechanized, orderly and predictable, made other tourist attractions appear at best outdated, and at worst unclean and unsafe. Competitors have had to follow the mouse's trail. "We've learned from Orlando's megafacilities," Ibarra reveals. "I see them as role models." Never mind that going to Disney World -- land of long lines and indistinguishable choices -- feels a lot like going to the supermarket. Or the mall. The Watson Island development, says Ibarra, "is going to be part of the new Miami glitz."
But not until next winter. Which means there's still time for one last real safari, one last journey into what's left of our crass menagerie. And I'm taking it.
Day 1: My Honda, a blue Civic, swings into the parking lot at Parrot Jungle, just off Red Road at SW 110th Street, without a sound and is at rest. I check the backpack I prepared last night: reporter's notebook, pen, disposable camera, sunglasses, small snack, cash. I'm ready to go.
Sixteen bucks gets me in just in time to see the first "Dragons and Monsters" show of the day. In spite of the name, Parrot Jungle contains more than birds. Over the years the park has gone into the monkey, reptile, and bug business as well. I hustle to my seat in the "Jungle Outpost," a small exhibition space fronted by bench seating and covered by a wooden canopy.
"The alligator is indigenous to only two countries," says one of two young women who appear holding a two-foot-long baby gator. "Anybody know what they are?" The group of mostly tourists, retirees, and schoolchildren assembled for the show shrugs in unison. "The United States!" volunteers a brave second-grader. "That's right," confirms the woman, "the U.S. ... and where else?" No one in the audience seems to know. Time's up. "China!" declares the woman. A couple of young guys pretend to have known the answer.