Cypress Gardens bows out
By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Cypress Gardens, a Depression-era federal works project that blossomed into Florida's first "themed park," is closing after 67 years.
The Winter Haven lakefront attraction closes at 7 p.m. Sunday, ending a legacy that includes Southern Belles dressed in antebellum finery, water ski shows and movies once made there by stars such as Esther Williams and Van Johnson.
The park was the brainchild of Dick Pope Sr., an energetic entrepreneur whose unquenchable thirst for free publicity helped make Florida a modern-day vacation destination.
The park's closing ends a long struggle to keep the nostalgia-laden attraction alive in an era of far flashier attractions such as Disney World and Universal Studios. Two theme park companies, Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich and Busch Entertainment Corp., tried to revive the park but eventually sold it. Claiming a loss of $6-million, a management group that took over the park in 1995 said on Thursday that it had ran out of money.
A weak economy, Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, they said, were too much to overcome. Attendance, shrunken to less than half a 1976 peak of 1.7-million, never recovered from the tourist slump that followed the terrorists attacks of 2001. This winter peak season attendance in March alone was off by 42,000 from a year earlier.
"It is purely a financial decision," said Bill Reynolds, Cypress Gardens president and chief executive. "It is mandated by our lack of funds to sustain normal operations." All the park's employees will lose their jobs.
The same group has been planning to develop some of the 233-acre property into a residential subdivision. The gardens cover about 60 acres of that.
The recent tough times for tourism was just the final blow. Ultimately, Cypress Gardens was done in by ever-increasing competition from other theme parks and attractions.
In recent years, 94 percent of Cypress Gardens' attendance came from retirees rather than young families that are the backbone of theme park audience.
Making matters worse was its off-the-beaten track location several miles off U.S. 27, 35 miles southwest of Orlando.
"It has become increasingly difficult for smaller attractions to survive in Central Florida," said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando theme park consulting firm. "But I think Cypress Gardens' biggest problem was its location. It was hard to get there."
State tourism leaders termed news of Cypress Gardens' demise in the middle of the peak tourist season a "sad day."
"It will forever remain a special place in our heart and memories," said Donna Ross, president and chief executive of the Florida Attractions Association, a trade group that represent more than 60 attractions.
"Unfortunately I'm afraid this is a sign of the times," said Tom Waits, chief executive of the Florida Hotel and Motel Association. "Cypress Gardens was one of the original attractions in Florida, and its founder, Dick Pope Sr., was Mr. Florida Tourism."
Iowa-native Pope was a born promoter in the best traditions of Florida's PR pioneers.
Pope came to Florida with his father at age 11. After marrying just before the real estate market bust of 1927, he hit the road in a job publicizing Johnson Outboard Motors. He staged high-speed (for the time) motorboat races around the country that introduced the Johnson SeaHorse engine.
While living in New York, Pope's wife, Julie, pointed out a story in Good Housekeeping about a Charleston, S.C., banker who charged admission to tour the gardens at his private estate.
"It stayed in our minds," Pope recalled in a Cypress Gardens history. "So we talked it over and, after we decided to come back to Florida, we said someday we'd build a garden, so I could be president and attract visitors to Winter Haven."
In the depths of the Depression he talked the federal Works Progress Administration into paying the unemployed $1 a day to rake leaves around what would become Cypress Gardens. The work later was broadened to digging canals to create a chain of lakes. Pope was named chairman of the canal commission. After spending $5,000 in government money on the project, however, opposition grew. Pope repaid the money and deeded the property to Florida Cypress Gardens Association Inc.
Four years later Pope opened the lushly landscaped gardens with 8,000 varieties of plants from 90 countries. A serious photography fan, Pope waded into the swamp (critics called him the Maharaja of Muck) to design the landscaping through his camera viewfinder. His timing coincided with the growth of family photography, and he turned Cypress Gardens into an amateur photographer's paradise.
Then he hired local women to pose in formal dresses among the vibrantly colored foliage. The tradition started after the Popes outfitted the women in some of Julie's hooped dresses to hide some freeze-damaged plants for a publicity shoot.
In 1938 he added electric boats. In 1943 while Pope was off in World War II, Julie started the water ski shows after a group of GIs saw a newspaper photo of water skiers at the gardens and thought there was a show. So she rounded up her children and some friends to ski. The next weekend 800 servicemen appeared. Cypress Gardens billed itself as the "world capital of water skiing."
That's when Hollywood discovered the place. Hundreds of short films and newsreels were churned out there. They generated huge exposure for Florida's warm climate every winter. Feature films made at Cypress Gardens included Easy to Love, On an Island with You, This is Cinerama and parts of Moon over Miami.
Pope took Cypress Gardens public in 1972. Then he sold it to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the textbook publisher that got in the theme park business developing the Sea World parks. By the time Busch Entertainment Corp. got Cypress Gardens as part of its acquisition of the troubled HBJ, the park was down at the heels. Busch poured millions into the park, which was a personal favorite of August Busch IV. He saw its appeal as nostalgia before he gave up in 1995 and sold it to its current managers.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.
A short gardens history
1932: Dick Pope Sr. arrives in Winter Haven, persuades federal WPA to pay the unemployed a dollar a day to create a botanical garden.
1936: Cypress Gardens opens.
1943: Water ski show added.
1948: Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban film "Easy to Love" at Cypress Gardens; a Van Johnson water skier love story follows in 1953.
1971: Walt Disney World opens in Orlando, raising the stakes for theme parks.
1995: Gardens sold by Busch Entertainment to a group of managers led by investor Bill Reynolds
April 13: Park to close at 7 p.m..
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