Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Genuine Ending of Cypress Gardens

The tale of Cypress Gardens is quite depressing, yet somewhat fascinating. In case you didn't know, Cypress Gardens was in a way Florida's first theme park. It had its ups and downs: it opened in 1936 and soon rose to be a place of water ski shows, lush gardens, Southern Belle models, and other live demonstrations. It was sold in the 1980s following the opening of a certain mega resort but lived in the shadows of the other major theme parks like Universal Studios Orlando, surviving primarily as a niche.

Unfortunately, after the September 11th attacks, the economy spiraled downhill, taking out the tourism and retail businesses that were treading water. Cypress Gardens was one of these, and it closed in April 2003.

And that was the end of Cypress Gardens. Just like that, it closed, leading the historic gardens to decay and possibly razed for yet another condominium complex.

Cut forward to summer 2004. I was going to Panama City Beach FL for the first time and in a Florida tourism booklet I picked up at the welcome center mentioned Cypress Gardens. Assuming it was out of date, I read it anyway. It explained that Cypress Gardens had been bought and would open as "Cypress Gardens Adventure Park" featuring not only the traditional gardens, shows, and Southern Belles, but a water park, new theme rides, and 150 live animals.

From this description of ( which I guarantee won't last long:

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park reopened in December 2004 after a 19-month closure. This family-oriented amusement park located in Winter Haven, still features the spectacular historic gardens and water ski shows it’s been known for since its’ debut in 1936, but it also has more than three dozen thrill rides, concerts and daily shows, including comedy, song and dance and other attractions. Cypress Gardens is half the size and half the price of Walt Disney World, so it makes a great all-day family getaway. One of the must-see attractions at the park is still the 45-minute ski show that made Cypress Gardens famous as the “water-ski capital of the world,” during its’ heyday in the 50s and 60s. The beautiful gardens are another highlight in the park. Cypress Gardens Adventure Park is less than 30 minutes from U.S. Highway 192, one of Orlando’s main tourist corridors. The admission price is $38.95 for ages 10-54 ($31.95 for seniors) and $31.95 for children ages 3-9 (free admission for children age 2 and under.) This price provides access to all activities in the park including rides, shows and concerts, and entrance to Splash Island Water Park is also included in the general admission fee to Cypress Gardens. The ticket price also allows you a second day free if used within six days of the first park visit.

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park Address and Phone Number
Cypress Gardens Adventure Park
6000 Cypress Gardens Boulevard
Winter Haven, FL 33884

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park Rides and Attractions
The Gardens
Native plants and exotic flowers combine in this spectacular display. A giant Banyan tree, planted in 1939 from a seedling, stands proudly in the historic gardens. The Topiary Trail features a collection of colorful topiaries in the shapes of animals such as a rabbit, swan and serpent. A sparkling waterfall is the centerpiece of this trail, surrounded by brilliant blooms. In the Plantation Garden at Snively Mansion, you will find the aromatic herb garden, rose garden and butterfly garden at the Wings of Wonder butterfly arboretum.

The Shows
Choose from eight shows at Cypress Gardens. The daily water ski shows at Mango Bay proves that the “water ski capital of the world” lives on. Watch skiers take to the water and sky as they perform their gravity defying feats of wonder. They perform jumps, ballet-like movements and comedy routines – all on water skis! This show leaves visitors laughing and gasping at the skill of these wonderful performers. Enjoy a parody of life on the high seas at the “Pirates of Cypress Cove,” and thrill to the grace and beauty of the ice skaters at “Cypress Gardens on Ice.” Live music is part of “Farmyard Frolics” and “Jubilee Junction Gazebo.” At the “Wild West Shenani-Guns,” a Wild West town comes to life in a humorous skit of mischief and mayhem. “The Living Garden” is extraordinary. Performed daily in the Topiary Garden, watch as a beautiful “statue” comes to life and is transformed into a living fountain of beauty. Speaking of beauty, the “Southern Belles” of Cypress Gardens have long been a symbol of the park as they stroll the lawns and gardens, welcoming guests to the Adventure Park. The Southern Belles have been a tradition of Cypress Gardens since 1940.

The Rides
Cypress Gardens Adventure Park features 39 rides, including four roller coasters and a great selection of children’s favorites. There are two “adventure zones;” Paradise Pier and Adventure Grove. Paradise Pier has a boardwalk that is reminiscent of an old-fashioned amusement park. This is where you’ll find Hurricane, the park’s signature coaster, the Swamp Thing, a suspension roller coaster with more than 1,000 feet of track. Other rides include the family coaster called Okeechobee Rampage and Thunderbolt, a 120-foot drop tower. Storm Surge is a six-person water ride that plunges six stories down a twisting, churning river. Other traditional rides at Cypress Gardens include the Tilt-a-Whirl, Boardwalk Carousel and Sky Wheel. Splash Island is the park’s brand new waterpark, which features 6 water attractions. Rides are available for everyone at Splash Island, from the gentle “Tikki Garden” for small children to The Polynesian Adventure, a large, wet-play structure that holds up to 500 people at a time. Kowabunga Bay is a 20,000 square foot wave pool, and Paradise River includes more than 1,000 feet of bends and curves for a wild ride around the “Island.” The more adventurous will love Tonga Tubes, a 40-foot tall twin tube slide and Voodoo Plunge, a triple slide complex with two 60-foot slides and a twisting, turning body slide.

The Concerts
More than fifty all-star concerts and special events are held yearly at the Star Haven Amphitheater at Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. Performers include legends like Kenny Rogers and Loretta Lynn. General seating is included in the price of admission and guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs. A limited number of reserved seats are available for concert series.

The Animals
An all-new animal area is home to more than 150 animals, including a variety of birds, mammals and reptiles. One of the most famous animal residents of the park is Tarzan, a 75-year old alligator that once starred alongside Johnny Weissmueller in the well-known “Tarzan” movies. Guests can feed the specially trained birds. The animal park also includes a petting zoo for children.

Jubilee Junction
This is Cypress Garden’s “village,” of 15 shops and restaurants. Food includes everything from upscale fine dining at Snively Mansion to the Jubilee Marketplace food court. Artisans can also be found at the Jubilee Junction, crafting their wares. Specialty shops include a year-round Christmas Shop, an ice cream shop, souvenirs and more.

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park History
Cypress Gardens originally opened in January 1936 as one of Florida’s first major tourist attractions. It was a showplace for 8,000 varieties of flowers from all over the world. The first water-ski show was held at Cypress Gardens in 1943, and the park quickly became known as “the water-ski capital of the world,” and drew more than 1.2 million visitors a year. After years of declining attendance, Cypress Gardens went out of business in April 2003. It was scheduled to become a housing development when a grass roots effort to save the park got underway. Proponents were successful in getting the state to agree to pitch in $11 million to help save it. Polk County added another couple of million, and soon Kent Buescher, the founder and owner of Wild Adventures in Valdosta, agreed to buy the park for $7 million. Cypress Gardens was on its’ way to recovery.

And then...

Unfortunately, in 2004, Hurricane Charley ripped through the area as workers were preparing for the park’s reopening, causing approximately $3.5 to $4 million in damage. Numerous trees and much of the lush tropical landscaping was destroyed, but luckily, a banyan tree planted by the park founders Dick and Julie Pope in 1939, escaped with minor damage. The hurricane damage delayed the reopening for several weeks, but in December 2004, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park opened with a new look, new restaurants and attractions and a whole new beginning.

The triple Florida hurricanes damaged the new Cypress Gardens, which essentially doomed the last incarnation of the park. The owners at the time, "Adventure Parks Group" had spent too much money in repairing the park and sold it again in 2007 to Land South Adventures, reverting back to Cypress Gardens. There, it continued to exist for the 2008 season. It was a money loser and reopened again in 2009 with the animals gone and the rides gone, with the waterpark as a separate attraction.

This time, Cypress Gardens really was doomed. On September 23, 2009, Land South closed the park, unable to keep the park in its traditional form no matter what.

The park will reopen as Legoland Florida: sad considering that the demographics will shift again and its just another Legoland. However, it's not a total loss: Legoland Florida will maintain the things that made Cypress Gardens special, like the gardens, the water ski shows, and one of the last roller coasters it had. Plus, its a renovation of an existing theme park rather than a new theme park altogether, saving money, time, and costs. So it looks like Cypress Gardens Legoland Florida will be a success again...but as a whole, the story is bittersweet.

Image Credit: DWTickets

P.S.: Also from, a map for your convenience:

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