Beach Business Baron

From Alvin’s to Ripley’s, Gary Walsingham has been promoting business in Panama City Beach for 50 years.

Beach Business Baron Gary Walsingham, Panama City Beach, CEO Walsingham Investments By Wendy O. Dixon Originally published in the Aug/Sept 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

Gary Walsingham, who earned a business marketing degree from Florida State University, foresaw the tourists coming to Panama City Beach long before Simon Property Group’s Pier Park came to town, decades before the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport was built. For his vision, the 68-year-old won the 2011 Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce Pioneer of the Year award for bringing business to Panama City Beach more than 50 years ago. Though it’s nearly impossible to estimate how many millions of dollars his businesses have contributed to the local economy, his chain of Alvin’s Island Tropical Department Stores, specializing in beach clothing, gifts and souvenirs, has employed more than 25,000 people over the last half century. After the success of the first Alvin’s Island, built on Front Beach Road in 1957, he set his sights on expansion, opening 13 stores throughout the Emerald Coast and Alabama. He has since sold them all. And after an unsatisfactory six-week retirement, Walsingham decided the beach community needed more family-oriented entertainment. He opened Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, now run by daughter Sherri Walsingham, and WonderWorks, a science-themed attraction, which his son, Mike Walsingham, runs.

1. First job: My father started Five and Dime stores in 1950 when I was in second grade. I worked even then, mostly sweeping floors.

2. Retail savvy: When strip-shopping centers started popping up, businesses started leaving downtown areas. My father (Alvin Walsingham) looked for a place on the beach. He opened a Five and Dime, and then we opened a gift shop and clothing store. I finally convinced him to open one store and sell everything there.

3. On hiring 500 people every summer for 50 years: We needed that many just to keep up every season. I run into people all over the country who say to me, “I got my first job at Alvin’s Island.”

4. Surprising: I hated Christmas as a kid. People would put toys on layaway for Christmas back then. They’d pay 50 cents this week and a dollar next week. Then they wanted to pick up the assembled toys on Christmas Eve. I had to do all the assembling.

5. Hobbies? I’m an avid golfer, but I haven’t played since the slow recovery from foot surgery. I also like fishing and traveling.

6. Musical instrument: The radio.

7. Surprised at the award? When I got to the awards dinner and saw my mother and grandkids there, I knew something was up.

8. Alma maters: I have been on the foundation with Gulf Coast but now I concentrate on FSU. I was the national chairman of Seminole Boosters, and I still enjoy going to all the home football games and some of the away games. The whole family goes. It’s a big part of our lives.

9. Ripley’s and WonderWorks: We’ve always needed things for people to do here. I was concerned when they sold Miracle Strip Amusement Park because it was our main attraction. I’ve been encouraging people to bring things everyone could enjoy — country music, theaters, racetracks. The more we have to appeal to the masses, the better it is for us.