This is the 5th part of an examination of a piece published in The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine in 1988. The piece was written as a fictional look back over the 20-year period between 2008 and 1988. As we have seen some of the events described by the author, John Dorschner, have actually come to pass.
Intro, Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 , Part 4
In this next section, Dorschner tackles the development of Watson Island, Major League Baseball and tourism.
VICELAND, THE FLAMINGOS AND TOURISM
One of El Grupo’s 1st major campaigns was in selling the Miami City Commission on the idea of creating “Six Flags over Casablanca” — a $375-million theme park on Watson Island. **12 The proposal was vehemently opposed by many architects and environmentalists, who argued that the Casablanca Park would junk up a wonderful piece of government-owned property.
Journalists examined the plans — the agents vs. dopers shooting galleries, the smuggler speedboat chases, the sets created by the designers of the old TV show Miami Vice — and dubbed it “Viceland.” Civic activists complained that such “attractions” would further besmirch Miami’s already tarnished image.
But several El Grupo members were leading investors in the project, and they argued that the park would include many “wholesome attractions,” including water-ski rides and a jungle roller coaster. They produced an international survey, done by the Gallup organization, which indicated that the proposed attractions would be even more popular than Disney World.
The survey convinced the commission, who called for a referendum. Voters, with visions of tourist dollars dancing in their heads, approved the theme park. Environmentalists lost, the 1st of many times in the later 20th Century that they would be defeated by developers.
Construction began in 1990. The park opened in 1992. Architects and urban planners decried its massive, windowless buildings and parking garages that obstructed the bay. But tourists flocked to the place in astounding numbers. There were restaurants representing 2 dozen Latin and Caribbean nations, adventure boat rides (placed indoors, with ocean facades — an odd choice, considering that a real bay and real boats were available just outside) and an arena where customers could wrestle mechanical alligators.
The most popular attraction was Smugglers Hideaway, a 5- level structure where players became narcotics agents, fighting computerized “robo-dopers” with special laser-like guns. A player could stay inside the exhibit until his light- sensitive vest had been hit 5 times; a typical contestant survived for 30 minutes. Customers waited for up to 5 hours to get inside.
Of course Miamians know that a theme park was in fact built on Watson Island. As Dorschner mentions in the footnotes, that use almost seemed predestined. And the whole Six Flags/Miami Vice theme was never in play. Ultimately it was the venerable old Parrot Jungle that moved into Watson Island at a cost of approximately $47 million, not the $375 million that Dorschner projected. And unlike the Viceland of Dorschner’s imagination Parrot Jungle has had trouble on the financial end. The park opened in 2003, 11 years after Dorschner projected. Now called Jungle Island, I attended an event there a couple of weeks ago and from what I saw it’s a nice place.
Predicting ongoing antagonism between environmentalists and developers was not such a big stretch at the time the article was written.
Viceland, as most locals called it, opened the same summer as another grand attraction: the Florida Flamingos. Playing in Joe Robbie Stadium, the National League expansion team drew 2 million fans their 1st year. Their record was a dismal 49-113, but fans’ hopes were buoyed for the future when the Fabulous Flams acquired veteran All-Star Jose Canseco, the Miami Cuban who had hit 51 home runs the previous year for Oakland.
As we have already seen, Dorschner’s baseball predictions were pretty damned close. He predicted a major league franchise would begin play in Joe Robbie Stadium in 1992. He was off by only one year; the Marlins started play in 1993. He predicted that Miami’s team would acquire a Cuban-born slugger and he was right. But instead of Canseco, it was Orestes Destrade, who had become famous for hitting dingers in Japan, that the Marlins signed. Unfortunately, that experiment failed. It turns out that a home run in Japan is but a mere warning track shot in what is now known as Dolphin Stadium. At 64-98 however the real “Fish” were significantly better in their first season than the fictional “Flams” and the Marlins outdrew their imaginary counterparts by more than a million with a total attendance of more than 3 million. Incidentally, Canseco hit 44 home runs in 1991, not the 51 Dorschner predicted for him.
Viceland and the Flamingos began at a perfect time: Latin America was just recovering from its decadelong recession. The area’s massive debts had been written off by American banks.**13 As Latin economies revived, tens of thousands of upper-class South Americans came to Miami as tourists. Most said they had been drawn by the theme park and the baseball team. Together, tourism officials estimated, the 2 attractions pumped $750 million worth of tourists’ dollars into the local economy. In the park’s 1st 6 months, Disney World saw its revenues drop 19 percent.
The Flamingos became a team for an entire continent. They arranged lucrative broadcast contracts that carried each of their games to television stations in Venezuela, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. Within 2 years, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Flamingos were the most profitable team in baseball.**14
Ah, just when the predictions were going so well for Dorschner. There was an influx of tourist dollars from Latin America in the 90s, that much is true. Downtown was bustling with Brazilians and Argentines and all types of people shopping for electronics, jewelry, clothes, etc. But as I have noted Disney has nothing to fear from
Parrot Jungle Island and it’s been well documented that the Marlins have had attendance woes for many years. Dorschner was not able to foresee the inadequacies of Joe Robbie Stadium as a ballpark, nor the ownership changes and fire sales of player contracts.
Part 6 here.
12. Developers have long coveted Watson Island. An amusement park has been proposed several times. The latest proposal, made in January, was for a marina-hotel complex.
13. Florida International University economist Antonio Jorge, and many others, believe it’s inevitable that American banks write off their Latin American debt.
14. In the original Tropic story on the Flamingos, major league owners discussed how profitable a South Florida franchise would be.