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Garden dream slips away

Thousands pack the state's ''first theme park'' on the last day of work for 530.

By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2003

WINTER HAVEN -- When Corrie Malone and Tonya Godwin heard Cypress Gardens was closing, they had to return.

They donned hoop skirts -- one blue, one red -- and came to work Sunday. It was just the way it was 15 years ago, back when they worked here in college, except this time they did it for free. They smiled and swooshed their skirts and posed for pictures with just about everybody, from grandpas to little girls, who walked by.

"It's like a sorority almost," Malone said. "It's just so sad."

They weren't the only ones who came back.

Last week's announcement that the gardens would close Sunday finally brought the crowds that had been missing from "Florida's first theme park," which opened its doors in 1936. By Sunday afternoon, more than 13,000 people were there, far above the 2,000 to 3,000 that had become a good day.

Cars spilled into once-empty fields to park.

The sweet shop ran out of fudge.

People lined up just to enter the Butterfly Conservatory and sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the hillside above the ski show.

Outside, a mother and daughter handed out fliers urging public officials to buy the gardens and make it a park.

At least part of the 233-acre property, of which the gardens cover 60 acres, could become residential development. Will Reynolds Jr., director of marketing and operations and son of the gardens' president, said Sunday he couldn't talk about the future.

"I've been crying all morning," said Kristen Hall, even as she smiled and arranged her hoop skirt for yet another picture. "It was so sudden. Everybody is in shock."

Hall, one of 530 park employees now out of work, said she doesn't know what she'll do. She's afraid jobs will be scarce in Winter Haven with so many out of work.

As a little girl, her family visited here on every trip to Florida. Her favorite thing: watching the ski show.

"It's a vital part of Florida's history," she said. "To see it shut down is just terrible."

Gisela Ringhofer first visited 21 years ago. Her children came too, and their children.

Time passed, more children arrived, and eventually four generations came here together.

On Sunday, Ringhofer, 79, sat under the shade of an oak tree with her daughter and son-in-law.

"I'm going to really, really miss this," Ringhofer said. "There are a lot of good memories here. It's just beautiful. With all the Disney everything, this is more beautiful."

Son-in-law Tony Nikodem chimed in.

"All the amusement parks are man-made. This is more God-made. It's more natural," he said.

Especially now, he added, when it provides a refuge of serenity in a world full of "bombs and destruction and death."

But the park's owners said the outside world intruded even here. After Sept. 11, attendance never recovered. The park, which helped make Florida a tourist mecca, already was struggling against flashier themes and splashier rides.

The group that took over the park in 1995 said it had lost $6-million and was out of cash.

In recent years, 94 percent of the gardens' visitors were retirees.

But Sunday, young parents pushed strollers down garden paths. Children raced by in wet swimsuits and frothy "junior belle" dresses.

It was the end of a dream for Nikki DeLuna. The 12-year-old Safety Harbor Middle School student has visited every year since she was 8, dressing as a belle and hoping one day to work as one.

"It's just a memory now," she said. "I was devastated when I found out. . . . It feels like home here."

On the other side of the garden, in front of a pond studded with water lilies, Godwin and Malone traded their own memories.

The worst part was the heat, Godwin said: They used to stick their faces in the plant misters just to cool off.

"I passed out one day," Malone said. "Do you remember that? They had to take me to medical."

And then she turned as two little girls ran up.

"Pretty in pink!" she exclaimed and smiled for another picture.

Just downstream, Ron Humphries shot a final photo of a riverboat cruising by.

"This is something that just breaks your heart," he said. "Every weekend, you see all these seniors here. What are they going to do? I guess we're in that group. We're going to have to go to Disney now."

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