Jungle Island [formerly Parrot Jungle]
For the sake of analogy, let's say that you have a crazy uncle who lives in your attic. People come from all over to see him because he's so funny. Your family is embarrassed, but grins and bears it in the hope that the visitors will eventually discover that the rest of your family is equally entertaining, and will forget about the crazy uncle.
That, broadly, is what's happening at Jungle Island.
Parrot Jungle Gardens, as it was originally called, was opened by Austrian immigrant Franz Scherr in 1936. The Depression cut short his construction career and he wound up in Pinecrest, Florida, where he opened a feed store and kept several live parrots on display. The birds became a local attraction and Scherr realized that tourists would pay to see them. According to Grace DuMond, widow of Joseph DuMond, the founder of then-nearby Monkey Jungle, Scherr was a pest, always making suggestions to Joe. "'Why don't you do this and how about trying that?'" she recalled. "Finally, Joe just told him to go start his own jungle, and he did."
Parrot Jungle Gardens quickly became a Florida classic. It had a flock of deep-pink Greater Flamingos (who in the 1980s appeared in the opening credits of Miami Vice) and a "Parrot Circus," where the birds would pull chariots and fly a rocket to the moon. The star was Pinky, a cockatoo that rode a tiny Parrot Jungle bicycle along a high wire. She was such an icon that we put her on the cover of the first Roadside America book.
By the turn of the millennium, Pinecrest real estate prices had gone through the roof, so Parrot Jungle sold its property and moved to Watson Island in Biscayne Bay, just offshore from Miami, in 2003.
With the move, Parrot Jungle rebranded itself as a mega-attraction, with staff, facilities, and prices to match. It costs $$$ just to park, and another 40-50 bucks to get through the turnstiles. For that kind of cash, Parrot Jungle Island delivers more than parrots. Its sprawling, spotless grounds now include a "Treetop Ballroom" (available for private parties) and, in the summer, the world's largest inflatable water slide. The entire Miami Serpentarium, which closed in the mid-1980s, has been resurrected here. "Jungle Theater," one of Parrot Jungle's many open-air amphitheaters, was designed by the same guy who built the Sydney Opera House.
The parrots are here, too, over a thousand of them, but they're sometimes difficult to see among all of the upscale diversification. There is still the Bird Walk, where colorful macaws and parrots perch, out in the open, for passers-by to feed. There's still the parrot posing zone, where you can have a classic photo taken of five or six parrots clinging all over your arms and head. No trip to Florida is complete without one. But you can't take your own photo, and Parrot Jungle charges a hefty fee to have someone else take it for you. Hey, someone's gotta pay for the staff and the swanky new facility, and the animals have to eat....
What we find worrisome is that the birds' entertaining qualities are slowly being quashed, like jungle undergrowth swallowing a Mayan ruin, or your family ignoring that crazy uncle in the attic. Parrot Circus has been transformed into the slick "Winged Wonders" show in the Parrot Bowl, with six-foot-tall cassowaries, and condors making dramatic airborne entrances, vying for the audience's attention. The days of the parrot moon shot are over.
The show still has a bicycle-riding cockatiel -- Nikki, Pinky's successor (Pinky, who once performed for Winston Churchill, is in his 90s and still lives at Jungle Island) -- but it's next-to-impossible to get a good view of the performance from the back of a 1,200-seat amphitheater.
Parrot Jungle Island is still timeless Florida animal entertainment -- parts of it, anyway -- and it's still the best place to get up close and personal with parrots, many of whom have the run of the park. Just be prepared to navigate a lot of distractions, and to pay for the privilege.