Ten years have passed since it first sparked his mind and emotions, and summer, 1980, will be the fifth anniversary of its closing, but out in Arlington Tom Vandergriff still carries a torch for Seven Seas.
It all began in the late Sixties. Vandergriff, Arlington’s long-time mayor, was looking for ways to bring money and jobs to the city, and he got to looking at Six Flags. Since opening in 1961, Six Flags Over Texas had done nothing but go and grow, and Vandergriff figured that two parks could be twice as successful as one. Simultaneously, he was going hell-bent for election after another passion of his, a major league baseball franchise.
Vandergriff’s initial inspiration was a cowboy-oriented park, with horses, cows, Marlboro men, Annie Oakleys, and Indians. General Motors had 150 vacant acres near its plant and might be amenable since it sponsored Bonanza on television. Vandergriff cast about for famous-name principals to foot the bill, but struck out with those he contacted, among them Roy Rogers and Dan Blocker. Giving up on the western idea, he thought of Walter Knott, whose West Coast Berry Farm he had visited while a student at the University of Southern California. Vandergriff decided that Arlington could use a Knott’s Berry Farm, with ghost towns, Indians, restaurants, gift shops, an early-day train running through the grounds, and maybe even some Texas fruit, jellies, and jams for sale.
“Knott told me he was too old to start anything else,” says Vandergriff, “but he asked me if I had seen Sea World in San Diego, which I hadn’t. I paid it a visit and was carried away by the inventive way the sea animals were showcased. The fellow who founded Sea World was George Mil-lay. He apparently hadn’t heard of an Arlington or a Tom Vandergriff and wouldn’t talk to me either in person or on the phone. So I decided I’d ignore him, too, and we’d go ahead and build a sealife park without him. I thought the novelty of an ocean in the middle of Texas would be a winner.”
Vandergriff found another sealife park enthusiast in Angus Wynne Jr., of the Great Southwest Corporation, which operates Six Flags. Wynne said that if a park were built on the land adjacent to Six Flags, perhaps the two could be joined with a steamboat ride on a natural creek that passed through both properties. There was also talk of arranging entrance to both parks on a single ticket.
Neither the boat ride nor the two-park ticket ever materialized, but Vandergriff and Wynne made a deal. The City of Arlington would finance the building of the park, and Wynne and his Six Flags experts would design, construct, and operate it, coming through with enough money each year for the city to retire a bond issue. Wynne made the city an offer of $700,000 guaranteed annually along with a substantial percentage of gross revenues. Vandergriff says that although the city never actually saw Six Flags’ financial study, it was generally thought to project a yearly net profit for the park of a million or more dollars. A first season gate of $750,000 was forecast, more for each subsequent year.
With such rosy numbers in focus, citizens were asked to vote on a $10-million bond proposal, of which $7 1/2 million would go for Seven Seas and the remainder toward building Arlington Stadium.
Six Flags, with its reputation as a moneymaker, got behind the bond promotion, its spokesmen passing out literature and attending civic group meetings. The result: the biggest favorable bond vote in Arlington history.
Leading the design team for Seven Seas was Mike Jenkins, a Wynne understudy who now heads Leisure & Recreation Concepts (LARC) Inc., in Dallas. His scheme covered nearly 40 flat, dry acres and called for seven “seas”-three flanked by stadia for animal shows – lagoons, streams, waterfalls, hills, bridges, pagodas, and similarly exotic concession structures, and an underwater theater seating 2500.
There was to be a sophisticated water treatment system, animal holding tanks, a sub-surface room for the underwater viewing of seals (plans for a submarine-style underwater elevator were scrapped after in-surors questioned its safety), and a single ride, a “tunnel of love” boat expedition through an Arctic setting of Eskimos, polar bears, and penguins. The building and delivery of a sizable pirate ship, the Bona Venture, was assigned to a West Coast company at a cost of $500,000. A grotto-style restaurant and bar, the Sea Cave, would flank the main entrance to the park. A lighthouse at the eastern extremity would camouflage machines making crushed ice for the restaurant and refreshment stands. Lush landscaping would be the final touch, adding flowers, trees, and a profusion of hanging baskets to a breathtaking scene.
It looked unbeatable on paper, so, in early 1970, Six Flags broke ground, targeting the new park’s opening for the summer of ’71. Arrangements were made for the purchase of a killer whale, dolphins, sea lions, elephant seals, birds, and Oriental fish, and a search began for the unique personnel required to train, doctor, feed, and safeguard such creatures.
The roof caved in when the Penn Central Railroad, owner of Great Southwest, encountered near-fatal financial setbacks. Six Flags was ordered to pull out of the Seven Seas project immediately and its contract with the City of Arlington was cancelled through a recision agreement by both parties. A national cadre of banks attempting to salvage Penn Central installed new management in its varous companies and Angus Wynne was among those axed. Vandergriff says he’s sure that Seven Seas would have succeeded had Wynne remained in charge of the project.
With the birth and future of Seven Seas tossed rudely in their laps, city fathers remembered the glowing profits forecast by Six Flags and decided to open the park on their own. “We figured that if it was going to be all that good this would be a wonderful way for Arlington to make money and not have to split it with anyone else,” says Vandergriff. And so the Arlington Park Corporation was formed, its members appointed by the city. An assistant city manager, the late Pollard Hollis, was drafted to supervise construction and by default became general manager of the corporation’s entertainment division.
A serious construction strike hit the area, and in the face of delays and general confusion it became clear that the park wouldn’t be ready for its scheduled 1971 summer opening. But the sea animals had been bought and were on their way; their watery Texas homes had to be completed.
The winter of 1971-72 was an expensive education for the city. With absolutely no park revenues, the creatures had to be scientifically pampered and fed, and to do the job the park had to hire trainers, scuba-diving clean-up men, water system technicians, laboratory specialists, curators, a veterinarian, and feeders.
When the park finally opened in 1972, a year behind schedule, the cost had reached about $10 million, $2 1/2 million over budget. The city was forced to finance the overage with revenue bonds.
The park lost $500,000 in the first season, despite the fact that attendance was high – at 475,000, the highest the park would ever achieve. Its amateur management squad was dedicated but inexperienced. They tried again in 1973, with losses of $462,000 on a gate of 425,000, then went looking for help.
Although the thriving park at its flank now considered Seven Seas a pesky com-petitor, the city managed to talk Six Flags into a management contract for the 1974 season. Attendance dropped to 375,000 and losses rose to $516,000 in an effort by Six Flags that one Arlington official recalls as “flip and insincere.”
At San Diego’s Sea World, founder George Millay, who had originally refused to speak to Tom Vandergriff, began to take an interest in Seven Seas. Arlington was stuck with trying to retire over a million dollars in bond obligations a year, and Millay rightly guessed that he could write his own terms in operating the failing property. But more important, Millay was looking for a good location in which to try out a new concept – Wet ’n’ Wild, a customer participation park with surf and wave machines. It was unlikely that Seven Seas could be made to turn a profit, but Millay had nothing against trying, and if it failed, he would be there ready to persuade Arlington officials to try his idea.
Millay offered to manage Seven Seas in 1975 providing certain stipulations were met – among them that all the park’s animals be sold to his company for $125,000. Desperate, the city took him on. In a joint venture with the American Broadcasting Company’s Scenic and Wildlife Attractions division, Millay then formed Leisure Marine Corporation, made up of managers from Sea World, Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Circus World, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey. His experts in tow, Millay arrived at Seven Seas to prepare for what was to be the park’s most colorful, most prosperous – and last – season.
Millay expected Seven Seas to have an impact on the area of $6.4 million in payroll, purchase of goods and services, taxes and tourism dollars turnover. Shooting for an attendance record, he spent half a million dollars on refurbishments, and hired 250 summer employees, mostly school kids.
He gave priority to image-building and commissioned the Clinton E. Frank agency for a broad, multi-media advertising push. Eddie Barker of Dallas was assigned the public relations duty. Millay insisted on having a PR account executive at the park full time. Barker hired me to be the press agent on the firing line, and from early spring until Labor Day I worked with Millay and his crew, hoping, as we all did, that he would be able to save the park.
I decided to approach my mission as if 1975 were the park’s first year, leaving the large storeroom of press releases, clippings, and photographs locked and unlooked at. As marketing manager, Mil-lay hired a West Coast protege named John Seeker, who arrived carrying only a battered attache case containing cameras and a change or two of underwear. Seeker was the first to make me realize that members of Millay’s gang were cut from a cloth not usually found in Dallas.
At 28, Seeker had hunted whales and walruses in the Arctic and helped protect a captive white Beluga whale from a midnight foray by a nine-foot polar bear. He had photographed sharks tooth-to-tooth as they attacked a cage in which he perched with his camera, 60 feet beneath the sea. He had served three years as a U.S. Army combat photographer, with a year in Vietnam.
When he wasn’t dashing in and out of the office or on the phone pushing group ticket sales, he gave me a bit of education, knowing that in such an environment an ol’ ex-newspaper reporter from Dallas needed all the help he could get. It was Seeker who taught me that the white whale, unlike the killer whale, has no dorsal Tin on its back, enabling it to glide smoothly under Arctic ice; that the seals exhibited at Seven Seas had internal ears and that all seals have difficulty moving about on land or rocks.
Millay tried to keep his affection for Seeker and the others a secret, but beneath the bluster he was acutely sensitive and an extremely soft touch. Seeker played Millay like a fiddle and came to my rescue on a number of occasions when the boss needled me for being “a rednecked old toot in a seersucker suit and tie.” For my part, I learned to respond in several semi-friendly cussfights with Millay and once engaged him in a brief sparring match that left me with a knot on my biceps the size of a grapefruit.
Favorites permitted to indulge in recreational give-and-take with Millay were led by John Rognlie, a muscular oldtimer who was the park’s jack-of-all-trades, charged with maintenance and anything else requiring brawn, ingenuity, determination, sledgehammers, wrenches, and a salty vocabulary.
Rognlie owned a farm outside San Diego and yearned to take a Texas windmill home with him. He had every Texan he met, including me, looking for a windmill. When we failed, he advertised in local newspapers and received several wacky calls, including one from a gentleman who said both he and his son owned windmills but wouldn’t part with them; he was just calling, he said, to visit a spell with someone else who liked them. Finally, with the help of Paul Crume, who reported the Great Windmill Search in his front page column in the Dallas News, Rognlie succeeded in acquiring not one but three windmills. Armed with cutting torches he and several Seven Seas cronies took the mills apart and hauled them to his Arlington apartment digs, where they lay in his parking stall until the park closed and he could rent a huge cattle trailer to haul them to California.
Rognlie’s Arlington sidekick was Ben Bingham, a former Texas cowboy who supervised Seven Seas’ complicated water system. He was well known about town, having helped build the park, and had friends in the police department. As Rognlie climbed into his car to start the long windmill-pull to the West Coast, two squad cars roared up. The police frisked Rognlie, then told him he was going to jail; taking Texas windmills out-of-state was an offense more odious than transporting women for immoral purposes.
Bingham exposed the charade just as Rognlie drew back a fist to bust a cop in the nose. He was last seen heading west with a scowl on his face. The Texas windmills stand on his farm today, spinning in brisk Pacific winds.
Bingham deserved a laugh now and then considering that his task was a real headache for a guy from Silverton, Texas, where water can be as scarce as rattlesnake fur. His job was to oversee a vast network of tanks, valves, chemical blenders and pipes providing for the mixing, filtration, cura-tion, and daily turnover of 2 1/2 million gallons of water. Salt water – made with 3000 pounds of salt daily – was needed for the whale, sharks, dolphins, and sea lions; fresh water filled pools for costumed mermaids and pearl divers, black swans and flamingos, koi fish and turtles. There were four water plants with 25 pumps and filters, all churning 24 hours a day.
Temperatures disturbed Bingham’s sleep: 58 to 60 degrees for the whale’s water, 64 degrees for sea lions and dolphins. For the sharks, there were uncompromising chemical and mineral levels to be maintained; despite its reputation for ferocity, the shark is an extremely fragile creature.
Another of Millay’s troubleshooters was Bill Riley, who designed and built backdrops for the sea animal shows as well as a 100-foot, three platform tower for high divers. (The tower is still standing, rusting but stout.)
And then there was Mike Verdeckberg, who supervised the seven trainers and disciplined them when jealousies erupted into fistfights. A native of San Diego, he had hung around Sea World as a kid, begging for a job, any job that brought him closer to the animals. Verdeckberg began his training career with sea lions, then advanced to dolphins and, eventually, to whales. Before transferring to Seven Seas, he was training director at Millay’s Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Verdeckberg was a member of the first American team to train a killer whale, and he was the first to ride on one’s back, a stunt he incorporated into Seven Seas performances.
If Verdeckberg was king of the training crew and chief choreographer, the 6500-pound killer whale Newtka was the queen of the Seven Seas corps de ballet. Propelled by huge tail flukes and steering with her pectoral flippers, she would hurl herself effortlessly into the air, answering to the commands of her trainer, Larry Lawrence. In keeping with her center-stage role, she sulked or became fearsomely angry when crossed, but came through in Oscar-winning fashion when humored. Her I.Q., I was told, was that of a nine-year-old child.
Newtka was four years old when she was captured in 1971 near Vancouver, British Columbia, and taken to California’s Japanese Village outdoor park. Lawrence, who came to Seven Seas with Newtka from Japanese Village, had what could only be termed a special relationship with the whale. “I’m her closest friend in the world,” Lawrence told me. “Between shows I get into the water and rub her down – she especially likes it when I rub her tongue. Or I put my chin up to her cheek and talk to her. She sort of sits there and listens. When she’s miffed at me, she’ll go over to a corner of the pool and pout.” When storms came up, Lawrence went to Newtka’s holding pen, regardless of the time of day or night, to calm her down.
Larry saw to it, too, that Newtka received her daily diet of 100 pounds of fish laced with 36 vitamin pills, and he helped whenever veterinarian Dr. Jack Brundrett (who also serves the Dallas zoo) visited to check her health. At Larry’s command, Newtka would drape her flukes over the poolside concrete wall and lie patiently while Dr. Brundrett drew blood samples for lab analysis. Then, after swallowing her fishy reward, she would open her saw-toothed mouth so Larry and the Doc could rub her tongue.
Verdeckberg, Seeker and the rest corrected me when, in composing a press release, I referred to the sea animals’ maneuvers as tricks or stunts. These were “behaviors,” I was told, akin to natural actions in the wild and merely exaggerated for the purposes of showmanship. In one of her most dazzling behaviors, Newtka rocketed vertically from the water to touch her nose to a ball suspended 20 feet above the pool. To teach her this, Lawrence hung a ball on the end of a line and touched it to her nose, simultaneously blowing a dog whistle. She was then given fish. In subsequent trials, he lifted the ball higher and higher, whistling and rewarding her only when she made contact. A “no” or “delta” signal let her know she had failed and must repeat the process to be rewarded. For this, Lawrence thumped the side of the pool with a stick.
She learned also to carry a rider – either Lawrence or his whaleboy, Robbie Smith – on her back in sashays around the pool or in a first-ever-in-the-world jump through a flaming hoop. Summoning Newtka to stageside, Lawrence or Smith would climb aboard her back, clamping onto a circular harness around her head and, nearly prone, locking his ankles around her dorsal fin. She then dove underwater with her rider, swimming slowly at first, then gathering steam to soar through the flaming hoop and down into the water on the other side. As with astronauts, the worst part of the ride was the re-entry: The impact was so severe that it came close to knocking the rider unconscious. Our whaleboys somehow survived through season’s end. As for Newtka, I remember asking Seeker whether she was afraid of fire. “A killer whale,” he said matter-of-factly, “isn’t afraid of anything.”
In the event that the rider fell off, there was an emergency button backstage that an aide was to push to set off a general alarm. All of us – clerks, stenographers, bookkeepers, janitors, even cowardly PR people – were to rush to the whale pool, although what we were to do once we got there was never made quite clear. Rumor had it that there were some long poles stashed around the pool and that perhaps we should each grab one and poke at Newtka from a respectful distance to distract her while the man overboard swam to safety.
Newtka would, in fact, strike out even at Lawrence when, in the course of a performance, she goofed or was lazy and he refused to reward her. John Seeker told me that a killer whale can hurt you in several ways: crunch you with a slap of her tail; break your bones with her battering-ram nose; rip you with her teeth or pin you underwater. A story with special significance for me was that in a prior season Newtka had developed a violent dislike for the PR man, apparently recognizing him by his hornrimmed glasses and becoming visibly perturbed whenever she spotted him by her pool. One fine day as he stood at water’s edge, she leaped up at him without warning, teeth bared, and completely beached herself as he ran to safety. It took a crane to return her to the pool. I made a mental note of this and kept my distance lest she also dislike PR men who were bald.
Lawrence’s closest call came when he did his stick-my-head-in-the-whale’s-mouth stunt and Newtka closed her jaws on his neck, giving him an unwelcome Jonah-type view of her oral cavity. He had a whistle on a chain around his neck and when it banged against her teeth, she released him. He was bleeding only slightly, but it was enough for park management to write that particular bit out of the show. Larry once invited me to rub her tongue, and my hand got that close before I chickened out.
Tom Vandergriff, ever a sport in anything having to do with Arlington, once stuck his head in Newtka’s mouth without incident to oblige a news photographer, following which he invited then-Governor Preston Smith to come up from Austin and follow suit. Smith politely but firmly declined and volunteered his lieutenant governor, Ben Barnes, as a substitute. Barnes couldn’t make it either. Perhaps both were saving themselves for Sharps-town.
Determined to pull out all the stops in his effort to make Seven Seas pay its way, Mil-lay conjured up non-sealife features to boost the gate. These included genuine circus acts – the Los Obandos highwire troupe from South America; the Nerveless Nocks from Switzerland, wobbling on 110-foot sway poles above pop-eyed drivers on the adjacent toll road; Hugo Zacchini of Italy being shot out of a cannon across a 175-foot pool and into a net; and the nutty Aqua-maniacs in precision, comedy, and high dives off Bill Riley’s 100-foot tower. One of the Aquamaniacs regularly wrapped himself in a kerosene-soaked cape, ignited it, and stood on the tower bathed in an inferno for what seemed like an eternity before leaping into the water. When I asked him why he did it, he said, “To make a living.”
The Bona Venture pirate ship, which had been set off limits to the public, was revamped and fitted with coin-operated games below deck. Topside, Millay had several pneumatic cannons installed that for 50 cents a load fired hard rubber balls across a pool – and more often than not into pedestrian traffic. (A woman winged by such a cannonball sued the park, but lost.) Millay hired Arlington’s Biff Painter, a martial arts whiz, to rally a gang of bloodthirsty, saber-wielding pirates for wildly realistic fights up and down the ship’s mast and rigging.
Some attractions had trouble getting off the ground. The 2500-pound elephant seal-a sure enough ugly if there ever was one-was sick throughout the season and hadto be scratched from the program. Trainershad no luck in getting anything worthwhilefrom two Himilayan black bears, one ofwhich bit an employee’s finger mostly off.The other slipped its collar while being exercised during a closed period and shinnied upan oak tree. A trainer climbed up after itand managed to entice it down with an apple after an hour’s debate.
It was a summer of highs and lows, both in attendance and in the moods of the employees. The fact was that despite his efforts to make Seven Seas a success, Millay’s original suspicions had been correct: The park had lost too much money for too long, and the 1975 season would have to be its last. It became common knowledge that Newtka and the other animals would be sold, and workers whose fates were linked with them began worrying about the future. References to Millay’s idea for converting the property to a customer participation ride park called Wet ’n’ Wild began appearing in newspapers and, from the sounds of these stories, there would be many Seven Seas employees abruptly set adrift.
In a final push, Millay had the ad agency launch an intensive media campaign urging the public to hurry for a last look at Newtka and the dolphins, sea lions and sharks. There was a sizable response at the gate.
On closing that fall, the park sent seven sea lions to Switzerland and three to the Houston Zoological Society. The Galves-ton Sea Arama bought two sea lions, three harbor seals, and two bears. Four dolphins went to Chicago. The sharks were shipped to Brazil and a chimpanzee found a taker in San Francisco.
Newtka was sold for $125,000 to the Marineland & Game Park in Niagara Falls, Canada.
Long before daylight on the morning of Sunday, September 14, my wife and I joined the press, park employees, Dr. Brundrett, the Seven Seas trainers, and a delegation from the Canadian park to watch Newtka leave. She was to be caught in a special sling devised by Mike Verdeck-berg, lifted by a crane, and lowered onto a flatbed truck for her flip to DFW Airport and a rendezvous with a Canadian-bound freight plane.
The tank’s water level had been lowered so that wetsuited trainers could wade about the sling. Newtka was confused by the lights and by so many men struggling to trap her. She swished her great tail ominously and for an hour resisted efforts to get her into the sling. Her skin was gashed by the tank’s sides. The people from Canada shouted at Mike Verdeckberg but he silently persisted with his plan. Finally, weary and frustrated, Newtka surrendered and was lifted slowly and carefully up and out over a service road behind the area where she was lowered onto the truck.
Larry Lawrence made the trip to Canada and spent two weeks there with Newtka. The trip took nearly 15 hours and for the first couple of weeks Newtka’s muscles were sore and stiff.
“After we got her in the water, I stayed with her all night, holding her head up so she wouldn’t drown,” he remembers.
I called Dr. Brundrett at his Dallas Zoo office recently to ask about Newtka.
“I hear she has gone through a half dozen trainers,” he said. “She apparently is too aggressive for them. Down here it was her aggressiveness that made her such a star.”
Although paid attendance of 335,792 was Seven Seas’ lowest, the 1975 season was no loser. In addition to the $125,000 received up front in selling the animals to Millay, the city also was paid approximately $20,000 as its guaranteed share of gross revenues. The Millay group’s take from disposal of the animals was estimated to have been around $100,000. However, its net profit from actual operation of the park was never made public.
Millay had an agreement with ABC through which the company would provide $4-plus million for the construction of a Wet ’n’ Wild on the Seven Seas site, but ABC backed out because of losses at other parks it owned and its poor television ratings.
“If ABC had stayed with us for another year,” Vandergriff says, “I think the park’s future as a Wet ’n’ Wild would have been assured, because in 1976 their ratings began to soar and they would have been in a much better financial situation.” Be that as it may, the future of the park was up in the air once again.
Arlington looked for still another operator and found J&L Enterprises, headed by Don Jacobs of Gulfport, Mississippi, with whom it signed a contract guaranteeing the city one percent of gross revenues. The park was renamed Hawaii Kai. Jacobs, involved in sealife shows and theme parks in Mississippi and Tennessee, imported a troupe of Hawaiians along with several dolphins and sea lions. The kids were charming, but the dolphin and sea lion performances fell far short of expectations, and broiling mid-summer heat and ever-dwindling audiences spelled disaster.
Attendance by 217,882 marked the park’s all-time low. The city received a single payment of $1900 from Jacobs. His management was loose and erratic, and by the end of the season J&L’s Arlington enterprise was bankrupt. Suppliers trying to collect for goods and services found gates and doors locked and nobody in – except the law.
Watching from the sidelines, George Millay had never given up hopes of building his Wet V Wild park on the site and, with new financial clout, he swooped in again in an attempt to get Arlington City Council approval for use of the property. The main problem with the Wet V Wild concept was that conversion would take at least a year, and although Arlington wouldn’t have to pay a cent of construction and renovation costs, a closed park meant no revenues. Moreover, given past failures, they couldn’t be sure this new idea would work. And so the answer Millay got wasn’t just no, but hell no.
(Finally convinced that Arlington meant what it said, Millay studied alternate Metroplex locations. Last December, John Seeker announced that Millay and his partners will spend $7 million in creating a Wet ’n’ Wild on 65 acres near the dam at Grapevine Lake, opening in the spring of 1981. It will have a surf generating pool, river raft ride, 300-foot water slide, bumper boat ride, picnic areas, beaches, sailboats, and swimming and diving pools. But no animals. Millay’s prototype Wet ’n’ Wild at Orlando, with Seeker as marketing manager, has been a success since opening two years ago.)
Looking at Seven Seas in retrospect, persons closest to it pose a number of good and valid reasons for its failure.
All agree that the wintering costs were the principal insurmountable problem. Jack Eastwood, the city’s internal auditor who was based at the park throughout each season, says the wintering tab was $250,000 or more per month. The Six Flags study had woefully underestimated this abominable off-season drag. Largely ignored was the fact that in California and Florida salt water can be pumped cheaply and endlessly from the ocean, and that revenue-generating seasons extend through most of the year. Sea World at Cleveland, Ohio, which is closed for the winter, boards its animals at its sister park at San Diego until spring.
There seems little doubt that the city accepted Six Flags’ projections for the park too easily. And there is no doubt that after the split with Six Flags, Seven Seas suffered permanently from inexpert and inadequate management in an industry in which group sales, local, regional, and national advertising, and special promotions are vital to success.
Further, Millay contends that Seven Seas’ original design was poor. “There was too much park on too little ground,” he says. “When we had big crowds – remember we had 142,000 in August, 1975, coming to say goodbye to Newtka – there was pandemonium. Visitors were packed in like sardines and literally had to elbow their way from one show to another. And there wasn’t any shade where they could get out of that Texas sun and cool off a while.”
I was reluctant to do it because I preferred remembering the spot as it was in its heyday, but I recently revisited Seven Seas, with permission from its keepers at City Hall. Jeff White, an Arlington college student on the park’s small security detail, drove me through on an electric utility cart.
There were weeds by the paths and signs of neglect in the flower beds and greenery. Newtka’s pool was rusting and paint peeled on the fake volcano installed by Hawaii Kai over the holding tank where she made her last Texas stand. Awnings were ripped and fluttering in the wind. The rigging of the Bona Venture was rotting and the ship seemed defeated and sad, as if boarded and looted in an ancient sea battle. I told Jeff I had had enough, and he drove me to my car.
I stood a while by his side when he stopped and said, “I tell you what, Jeff, it wasn’t always like this. Seven Seas when it was alive was mighty pretty. I spent a summer out here and it was the best medicine I ever had.”
Jeff smiled. “Well, mister, as far as I’m concerned it’s still the most beautiful thing around. I love to go out into it alone and sit and think. Especially when I’m on night duty and there’s no one else around.
“Know what? There are coons and possums and rabbits hiding in there, and two foxes. I don’t spot them much but I bet I will again. Yessir, this is some kind of a great place. Beats anything I ever saw.
“Whenever you want to come back, mister, just give me a call.”
It beat anything I ever saw, too, JeffWhite, but I’ll not return again.
Ten years have passed since it first sparked his mind and emotions, and summer, 1980, will be the fifth anniversary of its closing, but out in Arlington Tom Vandergriff still carries a torch for Seven Seas.