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Florida landmark whirligigs back

Cypress Gardens has been spun around by time, competition and, recently, hurricanes. Its new owner is ready to hold it steady.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published November 24, 2004


WINTER HAVEN - The folks reopening Cypress Gardens had no trouble picking an exciting name for their wooden roller coaster.

The coaster might be a tame one in these days of extreme thrill rides. But it's named the Triple Hurricane to commemorate how many storms interrupted the rebuilding of Florida's oldest theme park.

"I was drawn to buy a park in Central Florida because of the warm climate," said Kent Buescher, the south Georgia entrepreneur hailed as savior of this big chunk of tourist industry history. "I never thought hurricanes would be that big a threat this far inland."

Buescher quickly learned the unpredictability of Florida weather. Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne left the storied botanical gardens a leafless tangle of 300 downed trees. Tornado-speed winds peeled the half-completed roof off the ice show theater, flooding the auditorium. The water level of Lake Eloise rose so high that even today the quaint electric excursion boats cannot get under the bridges.

But ready or not, Cypress Gardens opens without fanfare Friday for a scheduled Kenny Rogers concert and two weekends of staff practice prior to the Dec. 9 grand opening. The gardens are blooming again. The famous water ski shows and the Southern belles in the hoopskirts are back after a 19-month hiatus. Buescher has added 38 carnival-style rides and rebuilt virtually all of the 68-year-old park's shops, shows and restaurants.

"It's going to be 24 hours a day of work, and a couple of rides will not be open, but we'll be ready," said the folksy 49-year-old Buescher, who hopes to follow up on his success with Wild Adventures, an amusement park he created in Valdosta, Ga.

About 700 construction workers are feverishly finishing up the job. Because power companies diverted crews to restore electric power after the hurricanes, rather than plug in new users, Cypress Gardens' rides didn't get electricity until last week. Then a construction crew chopped a cable and left the park without phone service and Internet access for a week.

Park spokeswoman Alyson Gernert braked her golf cart to a screeching halt in front of a freshly laid track for the park train one recent morning.

"That wasn't here last night," she said.

Hewn from a cypress swamp, Cypress Gardens opened in 1936. It's publicity-savvy creator, Dick Pope, parlayed the simple roadside attraction into a full-blown park that offered shows, shops and restaurants in a lush tropical setting.

Once Walt Disney World opened and Interstate 4 put Winter Haven off the beaten track for tourists, Cypress Gardens withered.

The park closed in 2003. The government stepped in as it had at Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee, Silver Springs near Ocala and Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

Taxpayers poured $14.5-million into buying the 30-acre botanical gardens at Cypress Gardens. Buescher spent $7-million for the rest of the 150-acre site and will maintain the gardens, which are owned by Polk County.

Buescher has childhood memories of the place. But he was hardly your normal kid.

"I've been in business since I was 9," he said.

He sold greeting cards. At 16 he earned $1,000 a month selling Amway products, and at 18 he opened a scuba and water ski school. That evolved into a scuba equipment and marine electronics retailer, and the mail-order business became one of the first to use a toll-free number. Eventually the business failed.

"There I was at 25, engaged to my wife and broke," he said.

Undaunted, Buescher set up a color job printing business called U.S. Press that used toll-free dialing to develop a base of 50,000 small business customers. He sold it, but his wife, Dawn, still manages it.

Buescher stumbled into the amusement park business. His wife suggested it would be nice to own a horse. Buescher bought two, then a farm to keep them. The farm evolved into a petting zoo. Then came the rides.

Buescher said his friends tell him he's nuts to put Cypress Gardens back in business.

"My wife thinks I'm absolutely insane," he said "But this is one of the prettiest places anywhere. It just needs to be made relevant to today's families. Kids are used to 150 channels of TV, the Internet, video games and they are used to fast rides. It takes a lot to stimulate them."

Cypress Gardens drew 600,000 people its last year. Buescher needs 1-million to break even. He sees Cypress Gardens getting 70 percent of its business from local residents.

Experts think his chances are slim. Floridians have been spoiled by eight theme parks that spend more for a single state-of-the-art ride than Buescher has for all 38 of his.

"It's going to be tough," said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando consulting firm. "Everything is (25 miles away) in Orlando. They don't have enough special hooks at Cypress Gardens to get people to drive that far."

Priced at $29.95 until prices rise to $34.95 on Feb. 28, Cypress Gardens will be marketed as a value for people who don't want to wait in long lines for rides. The park has sold 20,000 annual passes at $64.95 each.

Buescher has some more attractions lined up to encourage repeat visits: a fifth coaster and a full-blown water park (built into the same admission) by next summer.

What has he done to hedge his risk? "Not much," replied Buescher, who used Wild Adventure as collateral for Cypress Gardens.

"I'm an entrepreneur," he said. "If we fail here, we'll be looking for a place to live."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified November 24, 2004, 00:09:21]


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