15 Jan Cypress Gardens and its Florida roots
As we have said in previous issues, the history of tourist attractions in Florida can be seen in a stark before Disney/after Disney terms. Up until the 1970s when Disney World gave the state its first monorail ride into the future of tourism, There were a handful of highly successful, world famous attractions scattered throughout the state. That moment signaled the decline of most of those other mighty tourist attractions, and the further away from Orlando, the harder it became to attract attention.
Cypress Gardens was most famous for their iconic water ski show. The image of performers standing in a pyramid four tiers high while skimming along on skis behind a boat used to be synonymous with Florida tourism. It was founded by Dick Pope in 1936, making it Florida’s oldest theme park.
The park had other attractions as well, including the expansive botanical gardens for which the place was named. There were canals dug that snaked around the gardens and electric boats that allowed tourists to view the beauty from while silently gliding along.
Located near Winter Haven, Florida, about an hour southwest of Orlando, the park couldn’t quite attract enough traffic despite many attempts to add features to increase interest while maintaining its traditional charm. The Pope family sold the park in the 1980s, and a small series of owners all tried their best to keep it going, but adverse circumstances always seemed to foil the best laid plans. Just when new owners would be poised to turn things around, they would run up against unforeseen factors such as suppressed traffic following the 9/11 terror attack or extensive property damage caused by hurricane Charlie. The turn of the century saw a heart-wrenching succession of closures and last-minute saviors until the doors finally shut for good.
Then came Merlin Entertainments with an offer nobody could refuse. They announced the conversion of the former park into the latest location for its blockbuster Legoland theme park, which opened for business on October 15, 2011.
Visitors to Legoland Florida will see a modern (some would say sterile) theme park with some tips o’ the hat to the old Cypress Gardens. The botanical gardens themselves are now owned by Polk County and are accessible from Legoland. There is a Lego-themed water ski show, but don’t expect it to be anything like the awe-inspiring acrobatics from the glory days.