June 24, 2018
John Holer, the founder of the Niagara Falls amusement park Marineland, which over the years attracted both revellers and protesters, died on Saturday.
He was 83.
Holer, who had been ill in recent months, was a “visionary” and “leader in the tourism industry,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati.
“He was a pillar, and he was a pioneer,” said Diodati. “He created a lot of opportunity for a lot of people and (his death) is a loss to the community.”
He credited Holer with creating thousands of jobs, helping folks put food on the table and countless kids pay for college and university tuition.
Diodati said Holer’s legendary marketing prowess — as evident in the commercial jingle “Everyone Loves Marineland” — brought millions of visitors to Niagara Falls, filling hotel rooms.
But in reality, not everyone loves Marineland, which has for years been embroiled in controversy, including the alleged mistreatment of animals.
Marineland has always maintained its animals are well-treated and allegations of abuse are not true.
Still, animal welfare activists have fought for years to shut it down, at times protesting outside the park’s main entrance.
Diodati believes Marineland, a family-owned company, is now at a “crossroads.” It can continue as is or, given its size of about 1,000 acres, it can be sold to housing developers, currently buying up land in the region. Or it can be sold to, or transformed into, an amusement park without animals.
Over the years, some of the world’s biggest amusement companies have tried to buy it, but Holer refused to sell because the park was his life, said Diodati.
“I would love to see it continue as an amusement park without the animals,” he said.
“I think it would be wildly successful, it would be welcome and it would help to feed into the critical mass of tourist attractions.”
On Sunday, the Star was unable to reach Holer’s widow, Marie, or son Peter. Another son, John Mark Jr., died in 2013. A company spokesperson couldn’t be reached.
Holer was born in 1935 in Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia. He immigrated to Canada and landed in the Niagara region in the late 1950s and started a circus.
“A vast number of visitors were coming to Niagara Falls, and there was very little for them to do besides the actual falls,” Holer recalled in a 1983 interview.
Sensing an opportunity, he opened Marineland in 1963, with a few sea lions doing shows in a small pool. Over the years, he bought more land — this too was controversial because on one occasion it involved the eviction of 47 families from a trailer park he had acquired — and the park grew into a massive tourist attraction that included a killer whale, beluga whales, dolphins and land animals, such as deer and bears.
Although society’s attitudes about keeping animals in captivity have changed over the years, Holer’s did not. Yet he did love those animals, said Diodati, noting, “The animals were his family, they were most important to him.”
Tim Parker, Marineland’s operations manager from 1994 to 1999, described Holer as a hard worker, who was first to arrive in the morning and last to leave, overseeing all aspects so visitors got the best possible experience.
“He was very devoted to what he did at the park,” said Parker. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me, or any other employee. He was always there with his hand out, helping.”
And Holer’s kindness extended beyond the park’s gates, said Parker.
“When I built my house, he was there with his construction equipment. He was saying, ‘You need a house. Let’s build it.’ ”
Since the park’s opening, it garnered headlines.
A bear cub once escaped for a few days, a bison wandered out onto a nearby highway, and four bears mauled a fifth to death in front of visitors.
In 1977, the U.S. government seized six bottlenose dolphins Holer had caught in the Gulf of Mexico, and following the death of a beluga whale in 1999, arson threats were made against him.
In 2012, the Star wrote extensively about whistleblowers from Marineland alleging mistreatment of animals, including a killer whale that spent its final four years indoors, often alone in a small pool with little natural light; dolphin skin floating in the water; and a sea lion that suffered eye damage because of filth in the water.
Following the Star investigation, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) did not charge Marineland, but ordered it to make changes, which the park complied with.
In late 2016 and early 2017, the OSPCA laid a total of 11 animal cruelty charges against Marineland, but all were withdrawn in court last summer.
Parker said Holer was always determined to clear his name.
“Holer was a very strong man. He had been dealing with it (controversy) since opening the park,” said Parker.
“He fought for what he thought was right for the park and for his customers.”
Source: The Star.com