A slice of real Florida
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003
Before Space Mountain and the talking mouse, a theme park in the sleepy town of Winter Haven put Florida on the map with its lush scenery and Southern belles. Cypress Gardens was the first paid attraction of its kind. Opened in 1936 by daredevil Dick Pope, the park charged people a quarter to amble about what became a 200-acre garden.
This was tame entertainment even for those days, and the flamboyant Pope was ribbed endlessly for seeing paradise in snake-infested muck. But the Swamp Swami was a gifted self-promoter. He deluged newspapers with publicity shots and added electric boats to putter across the water. When a freeze, in the early years, destroyed some plants, his wife Julie dressed some girls in her old hooped dresses; the Southern belles were created to hide freeze-damaged plants. The water-ski show was added in 1943.
In its day, Cypress Gardens stood as the ideal of antebellum Southern life. The movie scenes, the skiing tournaments, the annual passes came later, as competition from the newer and sexier Orlando theme parks began to cut into attendance. As time went by, the plants and the still water were no match for marauding pirate rides or somersaulting whales. Its latest owners announced last week Cypress Gardens will close today at 7 p.m.
This loss arouses nostalgia not only about the park. It speaks to the waning interest in a slice of real Florida when vacationers seem to prefer fantasy. Business leaders in Polk County are moving to spare a portion of the park from development. Even if the state needs another housing subdivision, it would be nice if parts of Cypress Gardens were preserved. It could remind people years from now what attracted their predecessors to Florida.
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