JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's considered by many the grandfather of all tourist attractions in Florida. Known as the "Coney Island of the South," it called Jacksonville home. Today's Disneyworld and Universal Studios in Orlando was yesterday's Dixieland Park in Jacksonville. "This amusement park started around 1907," says local historian Wayne Wood.
Dixieland was built in what was known as South Jacksonville, the area now known as the Southbank. It was called the most delightful place in all of Florida. The park boasted rides and animals. "It featured merry-go-rounds, over 400 wild animals including 100 lions, it had a Ferris wheel, a 160 foot bamboo slide, fortune tellers and gypsies and exotic displays of all kinds," says Wood.
Many people took the ferry from the end of Main Street over to Dixieland. It was a sprawling complex that included an opera house and exposition buildings. A baseball park was built next door. "I'd like to tell people that both Babe Ruth and John Phillips Sousa both played in the baseball park next to Dixeland Park," said Wood.
At night, almost 20,000 electric lights illuminated Dixieland. A major fire destroyed most of the Park in 1909, another fire closed it for good. That's when the Ostrich Farm moved from Talleyrand over to the site. "Ostriches were such and odd and ungainly and exotic creature that most people had not seen an ostrich before," said Wood.
Customers could ride the ostriches, watch them race and buy ostrich feathers in the souvenir shops. Later, the ostrich farm also acquired alligators and it was renamed the Florida Alligator Farm. By the 1930's the entire collection was sold to some folks in St. Augustine which is now the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.
From rides to ostriches to alligators, it all started more than 100 years ago in Jacksonville with Dixieland, Florida's first theme park.
First Coast News