A Rocky Start For Scarborough Zoo

In the summer of 1969 a brand new attraction opened in Scarborough.

Above: One of the earliest adverts for Scarborough Zoo (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)

Scarborough Zoo was located on the top of the hill behind the Open Air Theatre seating area, and was accessible by a road opposite the miniature railway station in Northstead Manor Gardens. Previously known as Tennis Court Road, this path had once led to little-used tennis courts, utilised occasionally by schoolchildren completing their cycling proficiency tests. The courts were widely regarded as a white elephant, and unsurprisingly council officials reportedly welcomed the Scarborough Zoo redevelopment plans – the man behind them, Don Robinson, promised a mini-Disneyland for Scarborough.

Construction began at the end of 1968. However, the June opening in 1969 was beset with all kinds of unusual problems.

1) An Escape

Scarborough Zoo hit the news before the attraction had even opened. Sammy the sea-lion; one of the park’s new imports, made a daring escape into the North Sea, evading capture for several weeks.

2) An Injury

A 3 year-old girl from Rotherham fell twenty feet from a thirty five foot slide in the recently opened park, ahead of the official opening the following Saturday. Fortunately young Jane West was not seriously injured, although a visit to nearby Scarborough Hospital was necessary. However, Don Robinson was quick to point out that the safety of the slide was not in question:

In one playground in Holland last year more than a million children used one of these slides without one accident. They have been using these big slides there for a long time.

(Don Robinson, quoted in the Scarborough News, June 11th, 1969)

He also emphasised that parents and riders needed to use the slide responsibly.

In actual fact, what happened yesterday was that the girl went down on her father’s lap. That is how she came to fall off. I would not blame the father: he was understandably very upset. It was just unlucky. The slide is not designed for children to go down on their parents’ laps.

(Don Robinson, quoted in the Scarborough News, June 11th, 1969)

Following the incident a notice was erected advising slide riders to adopt suitable sitting positions for their downward journeys. It is difficult to imagine an incident like this today occurring without an accompanying lawsuit by the parents of the injured party.

3) A Death

Only days before the official opening of Scarborough Zoo, one of its soon-to-be residents died before even arriving at the park. An unnamed dolphin from Miami, US, died whilst travelling from London to Scarborough. The unfortunate animal’s American trainer, Jon Keller, noted that the dolphin’s condition had been considerably weakened by high altitudes experienced during the Transatlantic flight. Hoping to draw attention away from the tragedy (and any negative feeling towards the zoo this might have incurred), Don Robinson was quick to point out the favourable condition of a second dolphin who had also made the same journey.

Within three or four minutes of being put in the pool he was feeding out of his trainer’s hand and Mr Keller thought this was very unusual as they usually take several hours to become established in strange surroundings.

(Don Robinson, quoted in the Scarborough News, June 11th, 1969)

Times have changed considerably since these distant days. It is now more widely recognised that animals have complex needs, and that captivity can cause distress and ill health.


Above: A performing dolphin at the zoo (from the author’s personal collection)

4) A Carnival

Unfortunate events may have given Scarborough Zoo some bad press, but perhaps it was better than no press at all. The opening of the zoo seemed, according to a study of local newspapers in May/June 1969, to be overshadowed by coverage and anticipation of the summer carnival in Scarborough. Then known as the Benelux Festival, this colourful event celebrated flowers, Scarborough and the town’s relationship with Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Nonetheless, Scarborough Zoo officially opened on Saturday June 14th 1969 (although judging from earlier articles some visitors had been admitted in the preceding week also) Alongside the Mayor, Mayoress and selected officials, 400 excited children from nearby Northstead School got the chance to be amongst the first ‘official’ visitors to the attraction. Mr Robinson’s son had attended the school, prompting its special selection.

In spite of everything, Scarborough Zoo and Marineland was a long-running success. Even after the animals moved out in the 1980s, a rebranding as an amusement park (known as Marvel’s) in 1984 ensured nearly two further decades of business for the attraction, which eventually closed in 2002. Mr Robinson’s ‘mini-Disneyland’ is little more than a memory today, but if you look closely at the overgrown wasteland of modern times, there are hints of the former attraction hiding behind weeds and broken glass.

Did you ever visit Scarborough Zoo? Do you remember the sea lions or the dolphins? Perhaps you rode the slide that Jane West fell from? Please share your stories or get in touch.


All of the research in this post comes from old editions of local newspapers held at the Scarborough Room in Scarborough Library.


Scarborough During The 1980s

The 1980s was a key time for many of Scarborough’s best loved attractions. In 1984, Scarborough Zoo and Marineland was given a makeover. The animals left and more attention was given to rides and amusements, under the new name of Marvel’s Amusement Park. In the same year the North Bay Bathing Pool received two huge slides (the longest in Europe at the time) and a new name – Waterscene.

Only a year later, Kinderland opened on Burniston Road, and two years later Waterscene became Water Splash World. Across town the South Bay Pool closed in 1988. Scarborough was changing in a bid to keep the tourists coming back.

One reader, Simon, has kindly shared some of his holiday photographs from the 1980s, many of which feature some of the attractions that Stories From Scarborough is investigating. The full set can be seen on the Stories From Scarborough Image Archive, but for now here are a few highlights.

Please do not copy or use any of these images without permission.

First of all, there are some splendid images from the final years of Scarborough Zoo.

Above you can see the performing dolphins, and below – a bear. There was once a whole host of animals at the zoo, including parrots, snakes, even farmyard animals and huge fibreglass dinosaurs!

There was also a small racing track (above), and the Astro Slide (below). The latter survived into the Marvel’s era. There was also a larger version at the Scalby Mills Complex, which was built in the 1960s and demolished to make way for the current day Sea Life Centre at the start of the 1990s.

There’s also a lovely shot of the Hispaniola on the Mere.

The company that built the Hispaniola back in the 1940s – Charles Pearson Ltd – also constructed many of the miniature boats for the Peasholm Park Naval Battles, which also feature in Simon’s collection.

And then of course there’s Kinderland – every visitor remembers the Muddlebugs (pedal cars), and how difficult to steer they were.

A huge thank you to Simon for sending these in. You can see more on the Image Archive website.

Do you have any photographs of the attractions listed on this website? Your images could really help both the archive and the research – often small details in a picture can lead to new avenues of investigation. If you’d like to donate images, please get in touch. Modern day images also welcome (e.g. photographs of the Hispaniola today, the derelict Marvel’s site, water chute etc) as too are opinions of the sites. Do you like the new developments? Or should the original attractions be restored?

Scarborough Zoo: Did You Know…?

Scarborough Marineland and Zoo operated between 1969 and 1984, and was located on the top of the hill behind the Open Air Theatre seating in Northstead Manor Gardens. The remains of its successor, Marvel’s Amusement Park (which retained many of the zoo’s rides and features, minus the animals) can still be seen today, although the site is derelict.

The following post is the third in a series, which brings together some of the shorter facts and stories about former Scarborough attractions. You can see the previous two on the links below:

Scarborough Aquarium: Did You Know…?

Gala Land: Did You Know…?

So without any further ado, did you know that…

1) Scarborough Zoo was built on tennis courts

Before Scarborough Zoo was built, the site was home to a large number of tennis courts and a small cafe. By the 1960s these courts were falling into disrepair, although they were also used by local schools, to carry out cycling proficiency tests. You can see the old courts on the map below:


Above: Map of Northstead (from the author’s collection)

2) A dolphin died

Various animals made the long journey to Scarborough, to be part of the zoo. Dolphins were amongst them, and were transported all the way from the US, which must have been an arduous and stressful journey for these seafaring mammals. So much so that one died after the long expedition – from New York to Britain by plane. The surviving dolphins, named Mo, Jenky and Artie stayed in a specially adapted building during the colder months – zoo staff did not want to risk another death by flying them to warmer climes abroad.

Above: One of the zoo’s performing dolphins (source)

Today, the captivity of dolphins and other marine mammals is considered potentially detrimental. Highly social and intelligent creatures, better suited to vast expanses of ocean than cramped tanks and enforced public performances, dolphins and the like are now much less likely to be seen in smaller venues (although bigger parks such as SeaWorld still recruit them).

3) The chairlifts were made in Sheffield

Originally titled  as the ‘cabin lifts’ the chair lifts were constructed in Sheffield, before the parts were transported to Scarborough and put together – rather like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The construction schedule overran, and the chairlifts ended up making a late appearance, opening on May 5th, 1972. Back then the ride was known as the Commando Cable Way.


Above: The original chair lifts (from the author’s collection)

The opening was conducted by Mrs Sheila Smith of Avoncroft Hotel, the recently selected ‘most lovable landlady in Britain’ by a BBC programme. There was a jazz band playing, and a steamer called ‘Pride of New Orleans’ was also launched on the same day.

4) There was a special North Sea Fish Tank

This contained species local to the North Yorkshire coast, including skate, cod, whiting, mackerel, crabs and lobsters. Not far from the fish tank, was a farmyard, where children were able to milk and feed goats, alongside other domesticated animals.


Above: The farmyard is shown on the left of the postcard (from the author’s collection)

5) The Zoo was officially opened on June 14th, 1969

Mayor and Mayoress Councillor and Mrs Norman Fuller conducted the ceremony at 11am, after which the zoo was opened to the public at 12am. Entry was charged at 4/6 for adults and 1/6 for children, with the venue proving to be an enormous success – 20, 000 visitors within the first two weeks!

Above: The zoo site (source)

6) The chimpanzees had a tantrum

In 1975 the UK was in the grips of a sugar shortage; a situation which did not go down well with Scarborough’s three chimpanzees, according to this article. Due to the crisis in supply, their keeper was forced to reduce the sugar content of the chimpanzees’ nightly cocoa treat.

“They didn’t take it at all kindly,” zoo owner Don Robinson said. “Smashing mugs, drenching their keeper – for a while there we were awash in cocoa.”


The chimpanzees would, during the 1970s, perform tea parties for zoo visitors – such a spectacle would be considered ethically questionable today, and perhaps the anger shown by the animals was not just a reflection of their fondness for sweet treats.

7) Visitors could go inside a Magic Mountain

The mountain was one of the zoo’s large fibreglass constructions, which also included large dinosaurs. The mountain contained models, including a town, fairground, toymaker and his toys, according to articles viewed in the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library. Other quirky features of Don Robinson’s ‘mini Disneyland’ included a teddybears’ picnic, chihuahua show, and a rotating barrel ride. Dick and Dottie, the musical geese, also starred, alongside a parade of penguins.

Scarborough Marineland and Zoo boldly declared itself The Happiest Place In The North, on its promotional material. But was it? Do you remember the zoo? Please comment or get in touch if you do.

Most of the information in this post was sourced from material held at the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library; particularly old articles from the Scarborough News and the Doris & Cyril Prescott Collection. See other links in the post for further references.

Memories From Marvel’s

Marvel’s Amusement Park, formerly Scarborough Marineland and Zoo, was located on the top of the hill behind the current outdoor theatre in Manor Gardens, Scarborough. It opened in 1984 and closed in 2002. You can read more about it on the links below:

Marvel’s Amusement Park (brief history)

Scarborough Zoo and Marineland (pre-Marvel’s)

Thrill-seeking at Marvel’s and Scarborough Zoo (rollercoasters and rides)

Great Crested Newts at Kinderland and Marvel’s (links with local wildlife)

Marvel’s Now (the current status of the site)

The following post contains memories of Marvel’s submitted by Mark, who previously shared his recollections of Kinderland with Stories From Scarborough. Although the zoo closed before he first visited the site, he does recall one clue as to its former existence:

From what I can remember, there were no Animals remaining, by the time I was old enough to visit Marvel’s (it was somewhere that was ‘off limits’ in the first couple of holidays that I can remember, as mum felt it was for older children than myself at that point.). One thing I do seem to remember, is during the earlier visits, there was still a blue-coloured ‘pool’ – I feel this may have been where the performing dolphins, sealions etc were previously located?

He also mentions the chairlifts, which have inspired a costume and art installation here at Stories From Scarborough, as well as a memory from another reader.

At first, once we started visiting, we used to go up via the road way, rather than the chairlifts – this was mainly my prompting, as I was fairly terrified of the chair lifts – I was convinced they would knock me off my feet, or that I would fall out of it once I was onboard!

However, I did get used to them, and from that point onwards, we always used the ‘green’ chairlifts to get up to marvel’s. We would often go up in the evening, using the chairlift whilst it was still open, and walking back down, and around Peasholm Park in the evening on the way back to the hotel.

We would also, sometimes, ride up during the day, crossing the site to the red chairlifts, and using them to get down to the northern end of the north bay. This would sometimes just be for the trip, sometimes to get to the sealife centre – however being a fan of the railway as well, I’d often be quite torn as to whether to use the train or the chairlift! We used the red chairlifts less often overall – the first time we used them, mum dropped a shoe, and I had to go back and fetch it afterwards – this probably put us off them slightly!

As for the other rides, he recalls the fearsome Big Dipper, and the more appealing Go-Gator:

Thinking about the rides, then… The Big Dipper, I only rode on once – mum was not keen on it, and I’d never been on any rollercoaster quite that large – or at least, it seemed very large to a young me. At the end of the sole ride I had, the brakes applied so sharply that I smacked my jaw into the hand/grab rail. It didn’t take long for me to decide that the go-gator was a much safer option, which I enjoyed, and therefore stuck with. I have a vague recollection of a ferris wheel there, too, but that may not be the case.

However, it wasn’t just rides that Mark remembered:

Although I remember the dinosaurs being there, I have little real memories of them, I’m afraid. I remember the model village quite well – the concept of being taller than buildings was quite entertaining to young me. I also remember the model village becoming quite run down towards the end of Marvel’s days, which kind of upset me, at the time. There was also a crazy golf course up there, which was something that had to be done every year – it was just ‘part of the holiday’.

I don’t remember Marvel’s doing souvenirs at all – they may have done, but I was too focused on the rides and other activities, I guess. They did have slot machines, however – this was something we did often on the evening trips – Marvel’s was much closer for an evening of slot machines, than the south bay. The main building I remember with them in, was fairly close to the top of the steps and benches that came up from the old ‘open air theatre’ area.

He also flagged up some new information that has not yet been covered here at Stories From Scarborough:

There was also a ‘water cannon’ type thing near the top of the stairs – you put money in (I think it was 10p at that point) and tried to hit targets with a spray of water – for no reason other than to do so, there was nothing to win, yet it was somehow very entertaining.

I remember they used to do a fireworks show, too – this often worked out on the week that me and mum visited Scarborough (or they may have done it every week, I can’t be sure on that) – so mum used to take me, and D, who was one of the sons of the hotel owners (same family I still holiday with, even now) up to see the fireworks display. Whilst we were standing around, waiting for the display to actually take place, the slots were great for keeping us occupied!

Once again, thanks to Mark for generously sharing his memories – written memories can be just as vivid as images, if not more so, and Stories From Scarborough is keen to hear from more of you if possible! It doesn’t matter how detailed your memory is, or how long or short, everything is relevant.

Did you ever visit Marvel’s or Scarborough Zoo? Or even the tennis courts that stood on the site before both attractions? Did you go on any of the rides? Climb the fibreglass mountains and/or dinosaurs? Take the chairlift? What was the model village like? Or the crazy golf?

Please comment or get in touch.

Scarborough Zoo and Marineland

Marvel’s Amusement Park in Scarborough had a former life –  as Scarborough Zoo and Marineland.


Above: Postcard depicting Scarborough Zoo and Marineland (source)

The zoo was open between 1969 and 1984, and was home to a vast collection of exotic animals. These included dolphins, sea lions, a snake pit, an elephant, wolves, bear cubs, llamas, squirrels and an aviary. There were also chickens, rats, mice and squirrels.


Above: Newspaper clip detailing the attraction (source)

Many of the animals endured long journeys to reach the attraction – the dolphins originally came from the US, and one homesick sea lion escaped into the North Sea for three weeks before being returned to the zoo, not long after his initial arrival. There is however some debate as to the truth of this story.

The sea lion in question – ‘Sammy’ –  also had a companion named Samantha – like the dolphins they were recruited to perform in regular shows across the summer season. Pictures show packed audiences during the zoo’s heyday in the 1970s.


Above: The dolphin show (source)

The Zoo was certainly an ambitious and popular attraction – it didn’t just feature animals. There were dinosaurs too, although these were made from fibreglass, and remained when the Zoo became Marvel’s. So too did Main Street – a feature inspired by Disneyland.


Above: Main Street during the Zoo era (from the author’s collection)

Below: A somewhat grander Main Street in Disneyland Paris (source)

The addition of a Big Dipper in 1973 gave the Zoo a further thrill factor – the ride was bought by Knowsley Safari Park in 1999. However, pre-1984, Scarborough Marineland and Zoo was perhaps best known for its diverse collection of animals. Nowadays animal welfare is a more pertinent issue, and this in part explains the closure of many smaller zoos – ill equipped to deal with the complex needs of their animals. The idea of a chimpanzees’ tea party for instance (a staple entertainment feature during the years of Scarborough Zoo) would perhaps be seen as demeaning and exploitative today, although performing animals still exist in selected shows and venues across the UK.


Above: A chimpanzees’ tea party – not from Scarborough – such attractions were once very popular (source)

In this video interview by Scarborough News, founder Don Robinson also describes the role of better nature programming, both on TV and online, plus a greater willingness to travel to bigger regional zoos with superior facilities and collections, as reasons behind the decline of local zoos.

The redevelopment of Scarborough Marineland and Zoo into Marvel’s was a bid to move with the times – by changing the focus from animals to rides and amusements, the site kept drawing visitors for nearly twenty more years. Again, today’s public are more mobile, and willing to travel to bigger attractions such as nearby Flamingo Land, which, coincidentally, Don Robinson was also involved with.

Do you remember Scarborough Zoo? Are any of the above details incorrect? Comments welcome below!

Sources for this post include:

Scarborough News

Marine Animal Welfare


Stuart Vallantine’s Blog