I loved the Gardens on my previous visit in 2011 because it was a throwback to an earlier era. It oozed Old Florida charm without the slickness and polish of a corporate theme park. Signs were painted by hand, a dusty museum with amazing taxidermy greeted visitors, and animals were just an arm's length away in their cages. Having a deep affection for all survivors of Florida's golden age of roadside attractions, I appreciated the fact that this place had endured. But I also wondered how it had survived as our contemporary understanding of animals' needs and habitats had made places like this obsolete. There was also a wildness to the park, like in a blink it could easily become wild again and be reabsorbed into the jungle that is the Everglades.
John Brady's vision of the park is more in keeping with contemporary values; while honoring the Garden's Old Florida roots and its history, he is taming and shaping the vegetation so the visitor can more easily appreciate the lush environment of this Bonita Springs gem. He's opening up narrow pathways and pruning back overgrown plants so that they can be properly viewed. Exotic fig and Kapok trees are revealed, and new plantings are changing the attraction from an animal park to a botanical garden. Much of the larger animals have been transferred to Gatorland in Orlando. After cleaning out the gator pit, the large alligators that inhabited it moved on to Orlando and were replaced by smaller, more lively gators that seemed to be in better proportion to the space. Brady also retained turtles, gopher tortoises, and the bright colorful flamingos. In addition, he created viewing areas around the flamingo pond allowing for better views of these amazing tropical birds. One bird enclosure remains for injured Ibis and seagulls, and a lone peacock wanders the grounds, occasionally letting out a loud call and making the whole place seem a bit wilder.
The gift shop and museum are in transition as well, as Brady has located his Everglades Gallery of photography near the front of the building. There is still kitschy taxidermy, and Brady has worked hard to maintain the character of the space rather than overpowering it. The museum has fewer artifacts, but it will offer Brady an opportunity to present programming like book talks and lectures. There are still some wonderfully bizarre artifacts throughout, and the hand-rendered signage left over from the park's earlier days are true pieces of folk art.
But outside is where Brady is making the most changes. Many of the animal enclosures have been removed and those that are more aesthetically pleasing have been re-purposed. The former panther pen is being transformed into a butterfly enclosure, soon to be one of the park's highlights. The section that once held deer and turkeys has been opened up to create an open area where outdoor events can take place. Brady's philosophy is to make Everglades Wonder Gardens a community resource for all of Southwest Florida to enjoy.
The soft opening of the park was the previous day, and despite the ongoing work, folks seem to be chomping at the bit to get inside and see the transformation. Brady is planning a grand opening in the fall when more of the work is completed and the weather is cooler. When I visited the gardens in 2011, I was concerned for the future of this unique Florida treasure, especially after becoming aware that owners had considered selling the property due to David Piper's illness. Thank goodness John Brady stepped forward; the attraction is in good hands, blossoming into a 21st century-friendly botanical garden, growing organically from its Old Florida roots.