Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Still Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens is the granddaddy of all Florida attractions and it only re-opened a couple of months ago after the state stepped in to buy it. The former owner who had been successful with a theme park in Valdosta couldn't make it work in Winter Haven and the state used Florida Forever funds to take it over.

The owner of the park on my last visit was Anheuser Busch, so it had been some time since I had visited Dick Pope's establishment on Lake Eloise. The roller coasters and thrill rides that the pervious owner featured are still there and the first thing I saw as we turned off Cypress Gardens Boulevard was the Starliner wooden roller coaster from Panama City. I hope the vintage structure finds a new home where it can be appreciated.

The huge parking lot was perhaps 20% full on this Memorial Day, and veterans received free admission. Instead of entering through the now quiet rides, the entrance is now located by a complex of shopping and dining facilities that are closed, aside from a solitary table selling AAA memberships.

Next we walked through the area with the enormous topiaries I remember so well from my last visit. They appear to be in great condition and are extremely impactful spread across a sloping field leading down to the lake.

We hustled through in order to catch the first ski show of the day. There were two stadiums but only one was open for the show that they claim is the longest running performance in the world today (Pope started ski shows for GIs after WWII.) The show is scaled down but still entertaining and I'll post video in a future blog.

The gardens themselves are the other main feature of today's park and for the most part, they are in pretty good shape. The plants are well cared for and both tropical exotics and native plants are spread around winding paths over the hillside. The long view up to the gazebo, seen in so many images with Southern belles strewn along the hill, is lush and colorful although we only saw one Southern belle who never left her bench in a shaded area. Also missing was the iconic Florida pool and the electric boatride through a canal which is now silted over.

Overall it seemed like something more was missing from Cypress Gardens. It felt like an attraction not running on all cylinders yet. There are remnants of its former glory in plain sight, but unlike vintage attractions such as Bok Tower or Homossasa Springs, it hasn't found the right blend of paying homage to its colorful past and being relevant to today's audience. I really hope they find it, because the one thing that is clear, is that it is a real treasure, still.

Vintage images from the State Archives of Florida


  1. We went before the close and felt the same way. The tour guides were very lack-luster, the animals homes were a little run-down, some rides were closed. It's always been about skiing for me, however, and that remained strong. I hope it finds itself! As Dick Pope said, "I'll be skiing you!"