12206 Front Beach Rd
Panama City Bch, FL 32407-3400
$7.00 Per Game
In the late 1950’s Lee Koplin imagined a mini golf course that leaped beyond the standard greens of his time, a course that was more like an amusement park or funfair – “a world of magic.” Inspired by the mildly themed Tom Thumb courses that he had seen throughout his life, Koplin’s dream led him to experiment with the idea of theming each hole, creating mini golf courses that featured larger-than-life concrete structures and obstacles, such as massive Easter Island heads, sphinxes, dinosaurs and rockets. He dubbed these magical courses “Goofy Golf.” Koplin opened a Goofy Golf course in Mississippi between 1957 and 1958 before he decided to head to Florida to open a bigger, better, and weirder Goofy Golf in Panama City Beach in 1959. It was his magnum opus, containing two uniquely designed 18-hole courses. Koplin started a trend that spread across the country as competitors followed his example, ultimately transforming the classic grown-up Club activity in to an immersive, fun-filled experience that quickly became a staple of the American family vacation. Koplin passed away in 1988, but his legacy course is still in operation and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Goofy Golf’s prime location on the beach in Florida’s panhandle has no doubt played a part in the course’s half-century of success. Panama City Beach is the closest Gulf beach to much of the Deep South, making it popular for families and spring-breakers alike. Before Orlando became the primary tourist destination in Florida, Panama City was the place to be. Goofy Golf delivers a pre-Disney, old-Florida, themed experience that is unique and relatively unchanged since it opened.
While those less interested in the historical value of Goofy Golf might find it outdated and generic compared to modern adventure courses, we would strongly disagree. Its so-called ‘genericness’ arises because it is the prototype for the American mini-golf oeuvre. Yes, you’ve seen kitschy statues at mini golf courses for your entire life, but this was the one that informed all others, and we can practically guarantee that this is still the strangest. You can’t walk past the property without trying to see each statue (and we wouldn’t recommend driving past, because that’s unsafe).
Upon entering the parking lot visitors are immediately greeted by a large Chinese dragon head (that you can climb inside), a monstrous purple dinosaur, a giant monkey, a massive sphinx, and several other classic Koplin creations. We were instantly intrigued by what we might find as we played through both of Goofy Golf’s 18-hole courses.
Needless to say we were not disappointed. As we began the first course, we found something to new to look forward to at each hole – putting through a snapping alligator, a web-spinning spider, a golden Buddha (a fantastic take on the never-surprising multi-level hole), an octopus, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex using a monkey as a yo-yo (yes, you read that correctly). At the center of course 1 stands a nearly 30-foot tall concrete moai, most likely a cousin to the one found at Polynesian Putter, that you not only putt through – you can also climb the spiral staircase to the top of its head, granting brave adventurers a bird’s eye view of the property and surrounding area, including the now defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park.
We had so much fun playing our first game that we had to play the second course right away. This course was probably more fun than the first – it had more playground-like activities between holes. For example, before we even started playing we stopped to check out the innards of the purple dinosaur by the first hole. One of our favorite parts of the entire complex was a massive subterranean cave connecting holes 7 and 8, complete with glowing black lit stalactites and stalagmites.
Both courses feature a variety of innovative greens that, with the right amount of skill and forethought, could result in a hole-in-one. But, figuring out the best way to achieve that requires significant creativity. These holes have surprising tricks, even though they have been copied and reproduced for 50 years. We don’t want to give away any secrets, but let’s just say that the turtle obstacle on course 2 was one of the most deceptive holes we’ve played to date. Even the few holes that lack an anchoring theme or kinetic gimmick usually require the discovery of some kind of trick shot. Mastering these tricks could even pay for your next game if you can summon up enough skill to get a hole-in-one on one of the eighteenth holes – both of which depend on a putt into the mouth of one animal then up a ramp into the mouth of a smaller creature (or you can do it the way Sabrina did and just hit the ball really hard and hope it ricochets into the winning hole). If executed properly, bells will ring, lights will flash and you’ll receive a free game pass when you return your putter. The fact that it is difficult, but possible, to get a good score and perhaps a free game is a huge part of the overall fun factor – something that many contemporary course designers don’t seem to understand.
Goofy Golf does show its age from time to time, but it’s still in better shape than Grand Prix. The gift shop sells postcards from its heyday the 60s in which you can see that not so much has changed as has stayed the same. For the most part, a little concrete-patching, some strategic paint, and lush landscaping would make the place look like new – and would make you feel like you had time-traveled to 1960. There would be no mistaking Goofy Golf for a contemporary amusement, but it has so much more visual interest and compelling gameplay than Coconut Creek just down the road.
We did notice that a few sculptures and structures appear to have been recently repainted, so there has been significant effort to preserve Koplin’s vision. With this in mind we hope that the mermaid that was once held in the giant octopus’ tentacle will someday return.