A Miracle Revived
Out of a forgotten storage shed and back into the sunlight, the amusement rides from the old Miracle Strip Amusement Park come to life again.
A Miracle Revived Unlocked storage unit provides foundation for the new version of an old favorite By Wendy O. Dixon
For 41 years, more than 20 million visitors spent many a day at Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, an iconic treasure for local families and tourists alike.
The original Miracle Strip, located on Front Beach Road, closed in 2004 when owner Billy Lark, after experiencing a decline in ticket sales and an increase in expenses, sold the land to developers who wanted to build condominiums on the site. The condos were never built, the lot is still empty and many of the rides had been sitting in storage since the last day they operated in 2004.
Four years later, while enjoying lunch outside the newly opened Pier Park just a few miles west on Front Beach Road, Teddy and Jenny Meeks, a couple in their early 40s who own a jewelry and handbag manufacturing business in Griffin, Ga., saw an unmet need and got a business idea.
“I thought they needed something out here for kids,” Teddy Meeks explains. “My first thought was a Ferris wheel or carousel or something of that sort.” He started doing the necessary research and found a broker out of Tennessee. After searching the country through the broker, he discovered that the perfect carousel was just down the street, in storage at the old Miracle Strip Amusement Park site.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Meeks laughed at the broker. “It was in an old beat up semi trailer, not even locked. Everything over there had been destroyed. Every building had been vandalized. Every window was broken. Wiring had been stolen. But every single piece of the carousel was still there. The horses were just sitting on the wall. Anyone could have come in and taken them, but every nut and bolt was still there.”
In March of 2010, the Meeks opened Miracle Strip’s original carousel as a lone ride across from the Grand Theatre in Pier Park, which is owned by Simon Property Group, the largest shopping mall owner in the U.S. The ride was an immediate and huge success. Simon Property Group officials liked the idea, and in the coming months the Meeks added a Ferris wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl, Balloon Racer, Scrambler, Red Baron plane ride and, most recently, a butterfly pavilion.
“Our first year was beyond belief,” Meeks says. “Everyone — locals, tourists, Pier Park — said it was great.”
The Meeks found more rides in the same storage area on the old Miracle Strip site. “At first I thought I didn’t have any place for them,” he says. “We just wanted to do the one carousel, but they kept lowering the price so I felt I could at least do something with them.”
The Meeks brought back to life four original Miracle Strip rides. The Balloon Race and some other rides had been sold to other parks in the country, so the Meeks bought the remaining rides from the same manufacturer that built the original ones, keeping with the same nostalgic carnival look. “They’ve been making them the same way for 100 years so it was easy to duplicate them,” Meeks says.
The family refurbished the rides, which are freshly painted in bright, cheerful hues. Now they are adding yellow and white daffodils, pink and purple petunias and animal-shaped topiaries, along with benches and canopies for families who want to escape from the hot sun.
Also new, the butterfly pavilion houses around 700 butterflies and moths representing 30 Florida native species. “We’ve got the whole life cycle here,” Meeks says as he points out a monarch caterpillar munching on tropical milkweed, then the cocoon house which nurtures cocoons in various stages of development. A zebra longwing butterfly, so called because of its white stripes on black wings, flits daintily from flower to flower. “My goal is for it to be a park with amusements, not an amusement park.”
Love blooms at Miracle Strip
While most of the visitors to the new Miracle Strip at Pier Park are families, adult couples find romance atop the Ferris wheel or while riding on the carousel.
“One night when it was about time to close, a couple in their mid-40s bought their tickets and rode the carousel,” Meeks recalls. “They were both sobbing, then they told us they had both worked at this same carousel at Miracle Strip, and even got engaged on the carousel, so it was a special time for them.”
One couple has exchanged wedding vows on the carousel. Prom goers include riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or Ferris wheel as part of their fun night. New Year’s Eve in Panama City Beach now includes a midnight ride on the carousel for Miracle Strip fans.
“We’ve had three generations take a ride on the carousel together,” Meeks says. “People post their photos on our Facebook page all the time.”
When Jenny and Teddy Meeks first approached Simon Property Group about the prospect of adding a carousel, and eventually a miniature amusement park, Pier Park General Manager David Lee was a welcome ally.
“It’s been a sell on our part because Simon is in the mall business, not the amusement park business,” Teddy Meeks says. “David Lee has done a great job of communicating (our vision) to Simon. It was well received by the public, especially the locals. And Simon really liked it.”
Lee says the Miracle Strip rides are the most talked about feature at the park.
“Pier Park is unique in Simon’s portfolio because of its location, we have only a few tourist properties,” Lee says. “Miracle Strip has been an iconic addition to Pier Park. We’ve captured the nostalgia of what Miracle Strip was to generations of families who visited the beach.”
A Family Affair
Jenny and Teddy Meeks, along with their three children, moved from Griffin, Ga., eight years ago to enjoy life at the beach. They still run the handbag and jewelry manufacturing business through monthly in-person meetings, otherwise using technology to run the business from their home in Panama City Beach.
The Meeks’ three kids are teens now (daughter Morgan, 19, is a sophomore at Troy University and sons Hudson, a rising high school senior, and Davis, a freshman, both attend Arnold High School).
“With our jobs being done online, our kids basically thought we just sat at the computer all day,” Teddy Meeks says. “They didn’t understand the business aspect of it. We started the carousel so they could learn how to do business.”
Everyone in the Meeks family works shifts at the park. Teddy Meeks comes in every morning to start the two-hour-a-day preparation to open the park, including inspecting and maintaining each ride and watering and fertilizing the dozens of plants. Jenny Meeks works the afternoon shift, managing the kids, who provide customer service.
“They’ve learned how to deal with customers and money, my sons can change out the mechanical parts,” Teddy Meeks says. “Most of the time, they’re good kids. They don’t mind working, and they’ve learned a tremendous amount. They get to see us in action, because Jenny and I talk about the business and paying the bills. It’s been really good for the whole family.”
The park closes for three weeks in January to do heavy maintenance and repairs on the rides, which stay on site during that time. Otherwise, the park is open. Tickets are $3.50 per ride or $18 for an unlimited ride armband. The Meeks pay a ground lease and rental fee, like all the other stores and restaurants at Pier Park.
Future plans include the addition of concessions, restrooms and more rides. The new, miniature version of Miracle Strip in the prime location at Pier Park started with an idea during lunch and turned into an entrepreneurial success story. Teddy Meeks says, “The rest is pure luck.”