Florida's Cypress Gardens

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Photo of Dick Pope, founder of Cypress Gardens.
Dick Pope
Photo courtesy Florida Archives Photographic Collection.

Dick Pope was the consummate promoter, and the garden he planted became the most famous and publicized pre-Disney Florida attraction of them all.

Dick was the son of a real estate salesman, and he learned how to sell early on in his life. By his twenties Dick and his brother Malcolm were boating barnstormers, performing speedboat and aquaplane exhibitions across the country. Dick did public relations for Johnson Outboard Motors, eventually moving to New York where he ran his own public relations firm.

A news story about a Charleston man who began charging admission -- and making good money doing it -- to his own private estate's gardens gave Dick an idea. He bought some swampland on the shores of Lake Eloise in Central Florida and managed to get the WPA to do some of the work digging canals and filling in the site of what would become Cypress Gardens. Dick didn't know much about plants but his wife Julie did, and together they built a showplace designed from the first to be photo friendly and a riot of color (not unlike Dick's trademark loud sports jackets).

Cypress Gardens opened on January 2, 1936, and Dick went to work promoting his business, sending photos of his blooming gardens to snowbound newspaper offices in the North. He became a tireless promoter of not just his gardens, but Florida tourism too, realizing that he had to get people into the state first before they could visit his park.

In 1940 a freeze killed off a Flame Vine near the gate and, although the rest of the gardens inside had been protected from the freeze, potential visitors would walk up, see the dead plant, and, figuring that the insides must be just as brown as the vine outside, turn around and leave. Pretty girls from the office staff were recruited to don colorful, old fashioned dresses and stand in front of the vine to distract visitors from the damage and get them inside. It worked, and pretty "Southern Belles" became a fixture at the gardens.

Photo of a Southern Belle at Cypress Gardens.
Southern Belles pose in the gardens.
Postcard image from the author's collection.

The park's famous water ski shows came about just as serendipitously. During World War Two (when Dick was off serving his country in the military) a local newspaper happened to publish a photo that showed a water skier at the gardens. Bored soldiers from nearby training camps saw the photo and came to the gardens asking what time the water show was. They didn't have a water show, hadn't even thought about starting one, but it didn't take long for Julie to convince her son (an accomplished water skier) and his friends to put on their first. The next weekend 800 people came to see the show and a tradition was born, with a water ski stadium and more elaborate shows to follow.

Postcard of water ski show.
Water Ski Shows.
Postcard image from the author's collection.

After the war Dick continued to make his gardens one of the most famous spots in Florida, attracting film producers and continuing to send out a blizzard of colorful photographs that found their way into thousands of publications. He took to crowning a pretty girl a queen of something or other almost daily, resulting in more photo publicity.

When Walt Disney announced the construction of Walt Disney World in the late 1960's, Dick was supportive, believing that anything that brought more visitors to Florida was only going to help his business. Dick took out an ad in the newspaper and appeared in a short film (shown on Florida television stations) welcoming Walt Disney World.

But, by the time Walt Disney World opened in 1971, travel patterns and demographics had already begun to change. People took shorter trips and became more destination oriented -- visitors came to the Orlando theme parks, stayed a few days, then left often without coming south to Cypress Gardens. The gas shortages of the mid-seventies hurt even more. Cypress Gardens tried at first to respond to theme park competition by expanding and opening theme park-like attractions, but they couldn't match Disney's high standards.

Dick Pope retired in the early 1980's and passed on the park to his son, Dick Pope, Jr..

In the mid-1980's publishing corporation Harcourt Brace Jovanovich went on a theme park buying spree, acquiring the Sea World parks, Circus World, Stars Hall of Fame, and, in June 1985, Cypress Gardens.

Meanwhile, Dick Pope, Sr., died on January 29, 1988; Julie Pope followed him two months later.

HBJ put millions into their parks but overextended themselves and had to get out of the business in 1989, selling the parks, including Cypress Gardens, to Busch Entertainment.

Busch closed Boardwalk and Baseball (the former Circus World), and expanded the Sea World parks, but didn't seem to know quite what to do with Cypress Gardens. They even contemplated closing it, but in 1995 Cypress Gardens own management team, led by Bill Reynolds, purchased the park from Busch.

The park continued to grow under new management and now targeted the older, local market to a greater extent with concerts and a new cruise boat, the Southern Breeze paddlewheeler, on the lake.

And then came 9/11 and the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Tourism plummeted. A slow economy and weak stock market further hurt the park's now key demographic of fixed-income retirees. On Thursday, April 10, 2003, the park released a statement that April 13th would be the park's final day of operation. The gates closed, the roar of the water ski boats was silenced, and it looked like an era in Florida tourism was at an end.

A deal was arranged in 2004, by the Trust for Public Land, for Adventure Parks Group LLC., which was run by Kent Buescher who owned and operated the Wild Adventures Theme Park south of Valdosta, Georgia, to purchase the non-gardens areas of the park for $7 million, while Polk County agreed to buy the 30 acre botanical gardens for $2.5 million. The State of Florida placed development restrictions on the surrounding land so that it was "restricted to development as a theme park to promote the Historic Gardens."

Buescher invested heavily in the park, moving the entrance and turning the old parking lot into a family oriented amusement park, not unlike Wild Adventures, with multiple roller coasters and additional flat rides, as well as a new water park.

Galaxy Spin Coaster.
The Galaxy Spin Roller Coaster at Cypress Gardens Adventure Park
Photo Copyright 2005 by Lostparks.com.

And then came Charley. In August of 2004, on Friday the 13th, Hurricane Charley ripped through Central Florida and did millions of dollars in damage to Cypress Gardens even before it was able to reopen. And then, later that season, Hurricanes Frances and Jean also came through, causing additional damage. Buescher finally managed to get the attraction, now dubbed Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, open late that November, but it was now operating under a financial cloud as a dispute arose with the park's insurance company and millions of dollars in claims for huricane damage and reconstruction went unpaid as debt mounted.

On November 11th, 2006, Adventure Parks Group LLC. had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The park, however stayed open.

In 2007, Rob Harper and Brian Philpot of Land South Holdings paid $16.8 million for the park at a bankruptcy auction, then closed it in November of 2008 to remove many of the rides and animal exhibits and return the emphasis of the park to the gardens (the water park was expanded, however). The park reopened in March of 2009 and made it to September of that year before it was forced to close yet again.

This time, it looked like it might be closed for good. Then, in January, 2010, the property was sold to Merlin Entertainments Group, owner of the Legoland parks. Cypress Gardens would indeed be history, but, in its place, a new Legoland park would arise in 2011, joining its sister parks in California, Denmark, England, and Germany (with another park in Malaysia set to open after the Florida version).

Sign announces the coming Legoland.
Legoland Sign
Photo Copyright 2011 by Robert H. Brown.

The historic gardens themselves, leased to the new park, will remain, although the seasonal topiaries and existing statuary may give way to creations in plastic blocks. Legoland also apparently plans to continue the water ski shows, and may even feature a few Southen Belles. But, even if the garden area still retains the "Cypress Gardens" name, the old park will have been transformed into something new and different: Legoland Florida. Florida's Cypress Gardens, as an independent attraction, will be gone.

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B&W photo courtesy Florida Archives Photographic Collection.

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