Celebrating 75 Years of Awe, Fun
Tiara Rivera of New York City struggled to take it all in. The first-time visitor to Myrtle Beach meandered the maze of the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove. She strolled in searching for a shot glass souvenir and, like so many others, quickly was overwhelmed—yet captivated—by the floor-to-ceiling displays and jam-packed shelves of nautical items, collectibles, shells and gadgets.
“It’s a lot. They even have a 10-foot gorilla,” she says, her cell phone capturing video of the store. “It’s like anything you can think of to go in any type of store. It’s crazy. It’s my first time here. The diversity of the things they sell in here is insane.”
And just like that, another customer converted. For 75 years, the iconic store on Myrtle Beach’s legendary Ocean Boulevard has entertained visitors—and locals, too—with its unmatched mash-up of souvenirs, trinkets and eclectic merchandise. The Gay Dolphin is almost as old as Myrtle Beach itself, with the business’ founding family also credited with helping the once quaint beach town evolve into the popular vacation destination it is today.
The Gay Dolphin is quintessential Myrtle Beach—quirky and offering something for everyone—and this year, celebrates its 75th anniversary under the same ownership of the Plyler family, which had the vision to blend souvenir hunting and entertainment under one roof.
“We do what nobody in his right mind would do,” says Buz Plyler, who operates the store his parents founded.
“I got lost in the Gay Dolphin.”
Step into the Gay Dolphin, and you’ll quickly catch on to what Plyler means. In addition to the traditional souvenir Myrtle Beach T-shirts, trinkets and taffy, this store is a one-of-a-kind treasure trove for unique gifts and collectibles, from a five-cent tiny shell to a massive $3,000 Big Foot statue—and everything in between.
The 30,000-square-foot store, which spans from the Boulevard to the boardwalk, features nine levels of floor-to-ceiling merchandise that seemingly never ends.
“That’s what made it so much fun,” says Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune, who recalled going to the Gay Dolphin as a kid growing up in Myrtle Beach. “We didn’t have multi-story stores here. You get to explore all the different levels.”
Meander a few feet after entering from the Boulevard and you’ll encounter the store’s top seller: blue Myrtle Beach bicycle license plate tags featuring every name you can imagine. The tags, which sell for $2.98 each, consume an entire wall, a rolling ladder parked there for convenience in reaching the top rows. They’ve been a mainstay for 60 years, though new names regularly have been added.
As you walk through the store, don’t be surprised if your presence triggers a pitch from an automated Blackbeard pirate machine welcoming you to the Gay Dolphin and inviting you to come over to make a souvenir penny. Or an introduction from a mechanical Zoltar fortune teller machine ready to entertain by reading your future.
As it was always meant to be, the store is a haven for nautical merchandise, from an extensive and exotic shell collection to wall hangings and the popular shark tooth necklaces. As a kid getting merchandise for the store, Plyler took a shark tooth to a gold wire vendor, who fashioned it into a necklace. Plyler had the on-street promoters at the Gay Dolphin Amusement Park wear them, and before you knew it, the shark tooth necklace—still available at the Gay Dolphin today —became a must-have for visitors and even locals like Bethune, who used to walk to the Gay Dolphin from her family’s hotel just a few blocks away.
“It was neat because it was a place to go to get something really cool,” Bethune says. “You can still go in there and get a shark’s tooth necklace.”
But the store goes way beyond nautical. Go down a few stairs and you’ll see an Elvis striking his well-known performance pose. There are sections for Betty Boop, John Wayne and other characters and celebrities; dragons; fairies and jungle creatures. A large llama and Big Foot stand posed and ready for customers’ selfies. The Big Foot dons the store’s most popular T-shirt that proudly bears the words, “I got lost in the Gay Dolphin.”
“It’s my best seller in apparel,” Plyler says. “We just heard so many people say it so often.”
And it’s easy to do. A few steps here and there take you on an adventure through the sprawling store, and just when you think you’ve covered every inch of it, there’s another several stairs around a corner taking you to yet another section.
“You lose track of time and lose track of space, then five hours later…,” says Chris Walker, who owns Mad Myrtle’s Ice Creamery next door to the Gay Dolphin, Hi-Fi Coffee Bar and Nightmare Haunted House, all on Ocean Boulevard. “It’s still as unusual today as it was 75 years ago. It’s one of those homegrown successes that you can’t replicate.”
A visit to the Gay Dolphin has become a tradition during every beach trip for generations of tourists. Plyler recalls when destination research surveys showed that the Gay Dolphin had become much more than a store, it had become a go-to attraction.
“We had the most devoted customers,” says Plyler, adding that more than 20,000 people a day visit the store in the summer. “It makes you feel, even now, somewhat surprised. It’s rewarding. I’ve always been surprised at people’s devotion to the business.”
Bethune says it’s not just what’s inside the Gay Dolphin that makes it unique; the glass observation tower along Ocean Boulevard was a sight to marvel back in the ’60s—and still is today. While still eye-catching, the tower—with its winding staircase—closed to customers in the mid-2000s because of increased insurance risk.
“It is an icon in Myrtle Beach, and has gone through the test of time,” Bethune says. “It looks about like it did back then. The building itself is very unique. Almost everybody walks into the Gay Dolphin because it is such a unique building. It draws people in.”
While most folks know the Gay Dolphin for the way it is today, it had a modest beginning.
The Gay Dolphin started as a simple, 10- by 20-foot souvenir shop for the amusement park of the same name. Justin and Eloise Plyler, Buz Plyler’s parents, started the store, choosing a name that reflected its goal of being a place to make children happy in a spot just off the ocean where dolphins congregated.
The Gay Dolphin Amusement Park and Gift Cove quickly became known as the place to find unique entertainment, which some fans still remember and reminisce about today. Trained dogs would climb ladders, do tricks and slide down slides. A “buried alive” man made customers wonder how he could survive (there was a secret back door where he’d “escape” every night). Every summer, a new carnival-like act entertained and lured customers in.
Jones Bingo was popular for more than a decade, and the amusement park, which closed in the 1970s, was known for its Wild Mouse roller coaster. The Plylers also owned a number of other businesses, including a reptile show, Myrtle Beach’s first aquarium, a monkey exhibit, a miniature golf course and hotels.
“A big part of our success is giving people a good time,” Plyler says.
Changes—some made intentionally, others necessary to overcome unforeseen challenges—helped the Gay Dolphin evolve into what it is today. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel wiped out the Gay Dolphin, forcing them to rebuild the store in the current spot. It was built back in phases, starting with the oceanfront, then the basement and stockroom, then to the Boulevard where the iconic tower was added. Another hurricane, Hugo in 1989, caused extensive damage, taking the front off the store and causing roof damage that took months and creative solutions to repair. There’s also been economic recessions, other hurricanes that threatened the summer tourist seasons and, over the past year, a pandemic. But the Gay Dolphin always persevered.
“We’ve had a number of really tough obstacles to get around, but we managed to do it every time,” Plyler says. “We never had a situation that we didn’t think we could get through.”
Plyler, who grew up in the penthouse on top of the store, entered the business at an early age. While his dad secured the gadgets sold in the store and his mom arranged for the jewelry sold in the Gay Dolphin, Buz handled the rest. He found reliable suppliers of merchandise not found anywhere else in Myrtle Beach and, as he got older, traveled to shows in cities such as Miami and Los Angeles searching for unique merchandise to wow next season’s tourists. Plyler’s experience has influenced younger business owners on the Boulevard, including Walker, who started working in air brush shops along the Boulevard in the late 1980s.
“However old he is is how much experience he has,” Walker says. “He has the benefit of 70-plus years of experience in human nature. He’s down here. He hears what people want, what they are looking for. A secret of his success is being there and listening. He’s always in there doing inventory, ordering. He still works a 60-hour week minimum.”
Building Myrtle Beach Tourism
The Plylers didn’t just build successful businesses. Their vision helped Myrtle Beach grow into the destination it is today. Justin Plyler envisioned a reasonably priced destination that was so much fun people would come back every year. He helped start the Sun Fun Festival in 1951 featuring quirky games such as human checkers, entertainment, beauty pageants and events—a mainstay every June to jumpstart the summer tourist season.
In 2005, the city named the park beside the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel just a couple of blocks from the Gay Dolphin after Justin Plyler. Plyler Park is the site for concerts, entertainment, events and more.
“There’s no doubt the Plyler family was instrumental in tourism development in Myrtle Beach,” says Karen Riordan, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “I want to congratulate the Gay Dolphin for their staying power in Myrtle Beach for an amazing 75 years, and for being an important part of what makes Myrtle Beach so fun and special for families.”
Walker, president of the Oceanfront Merchants Association, credits Plyler with helping protect Boulevard businesses and making the area more of a year-round destination. In recent decades, the Gay Dolphin stayed open through the winter to help keep some of its employees working during the off season, inspiring others—including Walker—to do the same.
Walker and others hope the Gay Dolphin will be around another 75 years.
“To still be able to ride down Ocean Boulevard and see that building still there and operating—it makes you feel good,” Bethune says. “It makes you feel like home. Part of our past, still part of our future. It brings back memories of days gone by where we can celebrate the history we have. I hope it stays there just like it is. I don’t think they need to change a thing.”
Gay Dolphin Gift Cove
916 Ocean Blvd., Myrtle Beach, SC 29577
Sunday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
(Summer hours are 9:30 a.m.-midnight, seven days a week.)