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AURORA, Ohio -- "A once beautiful marine life park [had] turned into ruins. It was like walking through a ghost town of some of the greatest memories of my life, including my childhood. It was unreal," said Nico Maragos, a former SeaWorld Ohio employee who gained access to the abandoned theme park in Aurora recently to take photos.
Ten years ago SeaWorld Ohio closed permanently in Aurora. Although the marine theme park closed in 2000, the same space was used for Geauga Lake's Wildwater Kingdom from 2005-2016.
Through Maragos's camera lens, the deterioration of the 50-acre theme park is apparent in before and after side-by-side pictures.
The park first opened May 29, 1970. It took three years to build and cost $5.5 million.
More than a million visitors would go to SeaWorld Ohio between Memorial Day and Labor Day every summer in the height of the park's success to see attractions like Shamu, Dolphin Cove, the Pearl Diving Pool, Shark Encounter, Patagonia Passage, the Wild Wings Bird Show and Flamingo Lagoon.
Maragos started working at SeaWorld in 1993 in operations and moved on to become a bird trainer at the Wild Wings Bird Show. In 1997, he moved to the animal care department to take care of the dolphins at Dolphin Cove and eventually he became an animal trainer for the dolphins and sea lions event during the first season of Six Flags Worlds of Adventure.
The demise of the park started even before the controversy over the treatment of marine life after receiving intense pressure from activists.
In 1996, a water ski performance went terribly wrong and a speedboat went over a railing into the spectators in the front row and 23 people were hurt.
That, coupled with the controversy over orca shows, and the inability to add roller coasters like other parks in the United States because of an agreement with Geauga Lake next door started the decline for the park.
Maragos, who now lives in Detroit, visited the Cleveland area and was given permission to take a look around. The 43-year-old posted more than 35 photos on Facebook and they instantly went viral with more than 800 shares.
"As you can see from the comments people are posting, it's still very much talked about and missed," he said.
"Working at SeaWorld was the absolute best job ever and the associates were one large family. I also met my wife there (married 18 years [Nov. 27]) and she ended up working in the accounting department. Even though it was a job with a lot of hard work and cold winters (I worked year-round), it was always a happy place," said Maragos. "Sometimes my wife would join me and help me with some playtime sessions with the dolphins during her break and other times I would bring some of the birds to her office to sing. Where else could you do that?"
Maragos said he was always curious about what the park looked like after leaving.
"I could see some details through Google Earth but I wanted to walk the pathways once more and relive the greatest memories of my life. Unfortunately, what I saw was depressing," he said.
Despite its deterioration, Maragos said the buildings didn't make SeaWorld a special place for him.
"SeaWorld was special because of the people and the memories that made it special and that can't be taken away," he said.
So what's the future for the now abandoned property?
It's still expected to be replaced by a Meijer superstore and a movie soundstage but redevelopment plans for the property owned by Cedar Fair have been stalled because of an income tax revenue debate between Bainbridge Township and Aurora. The former Geauga Lake and SeaWorld Ohio property straddles the two communities.