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"Is there something you want to tell me, Roy?"

Jim Hill

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"Is there something you want to tell me, Roy?"

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It's the story that's often been told about the creation of Disney World. How Walt -- as he was flying over the swamps of Central Florida in Disney's corporate plane -- looked out the window and saw Raz Island sitting in the middle of Bay Lake. "That's it," Walt was reported to have said, "That's where we should build."

Mind you, Walt Disney wasn't the only man to ever look at a clump of cypress in the Sunshine State ...

Photo by Jeff Lange

... and then think: "I can really do something with that. I can turn this place into a thing of beauty."

 Photo by Jeff Lange

Almost three full decades before Walt revealed that he was planning on building "Disneyland East" just to the south of Orlando, Dick Pope stood at the edge of Lake Eloise in Winter Haven and saw ... potential. And with the help of his wife, Julie, Dick eventually turned this quiet piece of waterfront property into "Florida's first theme park," Cypress Gardens.

Back in the day, this was one of the state's biggest tourist attraction. People would come from all over the country to catch Cypress Gardens' world-famous water-skiing show ...

 Photo by Jeff Lange

... or tour the botanical gardens.

 Photo by Jeff Lange

That's why it's a treat to visit Cypress Gardens today. So much of what made this place appealing to our parents & grandparents is still in place. Those beautiful southern belles ...

 Photo by Jeff Lange

... who pose amongst the topiaries.

 Photo by Jeff Lange

That said, it's not like there haven't been any changes to Cypress Gardens since the Popes sold the place back in 1985. There have been numerous changes made over in the past few years. Like that wooden coaster which was added to this theme park's line-up of rides, shows and attractions just last year.

 Photo by Jeff Lange

But even as it was adding this "new" thrill ride, Cypress Gardens was also strengthening its ties to Florida's past. You see, the Starliner used to be the high point of Panama City's Miracle Strip Amusement Park. But once the Strip closed in 2004, this classic "out and back" was carefully dismantled and then shipped off to Polk County. Where -- as CG staffers were reassembling this much beloved coaster -- they made a point of including a tribute to its former home as part of the Starliner's new queue area.

 Photo by Jeff Lange

But -- me personally -- you wanna know what my favorite part of Cypress Gardens is? The parking lot.

Why For? Well, there's this story that I've heard from a number of Disney old-timers. And it basically has to do with Dick Pope's relationship with Walt's brother.

Back in 1948, Roy O. and his wife Edna went on an extended vacation. The Disneys drove all over America. And as they were touring the South, Roy & Edna supposedly spent a very pleasant afternoon at Cypress Gardens as the personal guests of the Popes.

And in the years that followed, whenever he found himself in Florida, Roy would make a point of returning to Cypress Gardens and renewing his friendship with Dick.

Now one day in the early 1960s, Pope reportedly receives a phone call from the employee manning Cypress Garden's entrance. He tells Dick that Roy has just pulled into the parking lot and should be entering the park shortly.

So Mr. Pope goes out to the entrance of Cypress Gardens and waits to greet Walt's brother. And waits ... And waits.

After 15 minutes or so, Dick's curiousity gets the better of him. So he then wanders out into the parking lot to find Roy. And there he finds Walt's brother ... counting how many cars are parked in Cypress Gardens' lot.

Pope then allegedly said to Disney: "Is there something you want to tell me, Roy?"

Walt's brother -- of course -- was just gathering information. At that point, Roy O. still wasn't entirely convinced that an East Coast version of Disneyland would work. But as he stood there, looking at all those license plates from all those different states, Walt's brother's eyes were opened. He saw that a quality attraction in Central Florida could really draw a crowd from all over the U.S.

Now you'd think that -- what with the Mouse moving in on his turf just a few years later -- that this would have ruined Dick Pope's relationship with Roy O. Disney. Quite the contrary. Back in the late 1960s / early 1970s, there are no bigger booster of "Project Florida" than the owner of Cypress Gardens.

Don't believe me? Then check out this prescient quote that Pope gave with the Sentinel back in 1965, right after the Disney World project was first officially announced:

"The Orlando-Disney area will become a real hub of a great new progressive area of Florida ... There is no limit to the number of tourists a Disneyland will bring into this area ... It is, in my opinion, the most important thing to (ever) happen to Polk County. I am very, very pleased."

Or -- better yet -- what Dick said about this development in 1969:

"(Disney World will be) the best thing to hit Florida since sunshine."

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is ... Well, what with Disney World becoming more & more crowded every year. And what with all of these people rushing around on property, trying to make the most of their WDW vacations by making use of things like FastPass and Disney's Magical Express ... Cypress Gardens' lighter crowds & much slower pace suddenly seems that much more appealing to me.

 Photo by Jeff Lange

Sooo ... You want to have the sort of vacation that your grandparents had? You know, where you actually get the chance to relax before you rush on home? Then set aside some time to visit "Florida's first theme park," Cypress Gardens. And let this piece of Old Florida renew you.

Your thoughts?

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  • Nice article, Jim! It's nice to see someone acknowledging that there's more to Central Florida than the Mouse, Uni, and the Beer People.

    Overall, the Popes were spot on about Disney's effect on Central Florida - without Disney, I suspect that Orlando would be nothing but an bedroom community/business extension of Cape Canaveral (NASA and the aerospace industry predated the Mouse by a few years). But I have to imagine that they have to have felt betrayed by Disney's change in attitude over the years from "there are enough visitor dollars for everyone" to "all their dollars are belong to us".  And the place definitely is struggling as a result - they've been through bankruptcy twice so far, and there are doubts that it'll survive if things continue as they are.

    Do the rest of Central Florida a favor and get off property to visit some of these other venues, will you, folks? They need the money a hell of a lot more than Mickey does.  

  • Sorry, but I can relax at home.  There's so much to do at Disney that on the rare occasions I can get down there, it's hard to justify going anywhere else.

  • I'm with LtPowers on this.

  • Hear, hear to peace & quiet !!

  • We've gotten to a point where when we go to Florida, we stay longer.  There's so much more to do there than just Disney, I can easily stay for 10 days to 2 weeks.  By the time you make the effort and expense to get there, you might as well stay awhile and have some "vacation" with your trip!

    The Orlando Commandos who only do Disney are missing a lot!

    Sue in Texas

    ...who still has so much more to see!

  • And Jeff...beautiful pictures!  Thanks for sharing them.  I haven't been to Cypress Gardens in ages...I need to get back there someday!

    Sue in Texas

  • With two weeks I could still be at Disney and still having fun.  I'd need three weeks to go anywhere else.  =)

  • For many years, I held onto the idea that if I'm going to travel 1300 miles to Florida, that I couldn't justify spending my time anywhere but at WDW.  This past winter, however, I spent an entire vacation at some of the "other" attractions in central Florida, and I loved every minute of it.  It was a relaxing and completely enjoyable change of pace, and I didn't even miss WDW or mind driving by their signs knowing that I wouldn't be visiting on that trip.  Having a non-Disney vacation in Florida for me as a Disney fan is something I needed and loved.

  • Well, SeaWorld doesn't interest me much, nor Busch Gardens.  Universal Islands of Adventure was pretty good, but Universal Studios was mostly boring for me.

    So I could see myself going back to Universal some time, but there just isn't enough else in Central Florida to keep me interested enough to stay away from Disney, given how rarely I get to go down.

    If I was going to Florida every year or three, maybe.

  • I haven't been to Cypress Gardens in about 5 years.  But last time I was there, I was struck with how smart their marketing strategy was: this was a theme park for the elderly (60+) designed in such a way that it would allow them to introduce their grandchildren to America of the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s.  (There are large themed areas showcasing America of the past.)  Oh, and it's the only park I know of that still holds regular big band concerts--with space for dancing.

  • Cypress Gardens is a beautiful park.  My husband and I used to go every year when they had a Corvette show there in January.  We've taken the kids there several times and they enjoy the slower pace and the fact that it's not as packed as WDW.

    We plan on going again this summer.  Besides, you still can't beat their water ski show!

  • Two years ago I was in Florida for the first time in about ten years. I wasn't too happy with all the changes I noted at Walt Disney World, as it seems to have just gotten too big, sprawling everywhere and having become a confusing labyrinth of roadways leading off to all the parks and hotels. This was my first time seeing Disney's Animal Kingdom and, though I thought the layout was quite attractive, I didn't feel there was much there to see. In regard to the animal exhibits, I'd much rather tour nearby Sea World (a longtime personal favourite) or Busch Gardens in Tampa.

    In particular, I missed the tranquility of the old WDW of my youth (especially the old LBV Shopping Village, now "Downtown Disney"), and so I can well appreciate a more sedate park like Cypress Gardens being available for taking things easy and slow. I'm glad to read that there was a symbiotic relationship between WDW and its neighbours in the early years. Too bad that Disney under Michael Eisner decided it was not to stay that way, and seemed to aggressively want to compete and siphon off business from the other Florida attractions. Like I said, Animal Kingdom is pretty up to a point but offers little value for the high admission price. Next time I'm down Florida way, I think I'll skip DAK and visit the peaceful and lovely Cypress Gardens instead.

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