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Back when our grandparents used to visit the Sunshine
State, there was always one place
that they had to visit. And that was Cypress
Gardens in Winter
Haven, Florida. Started back in
1936 by Dick Pope Sr. and his wife Julie, this 170-acre park quickly became
world-famous for its lush botanical gardens & elaborate water skiing shows.
But with the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, the
center of gravity for Florida
tourism suddenly shifted over to Orlando.
And with fewer & fewer folks now willing to drive on out to Polk County to
sample Cypress Gardens' admittedly old-fashioned charms, the Sunshine State's
first commercial tourist theme park went through some tough financial straits.
Beginning in the 1980s, Cypress Gardens
changed hands multiple times. With each new owner not knowing quite what to do
with the property.
Finally in January 2010, Merlin Entertainments -- the
world's second largest theme park and attraction operator -- purchased Cypress
Gardens with the intent of turning
this beautiful piece of lakeside property into LEGOLAND Florida. Which caused a
lot of folks around the United States
to fret. Mostly because they believed that their grandparents' favorite
vacation stop was about to disappear under a blizzard of plastic bricks.
Ah, but that's not quite what Adrian Jones -- the longtime
Merlin Entertainments employee who was named as General Manager of LEGOLAND
Florida back in August of 2010 -- had in mind for the property.
"You have to understand that Merlin Entertainments knows
the value of mixing the old with the new," Jones explained during a recent
phone call. "Take -- for example -- the Alton Towers Resort, our flagship
property. We've got the Towers ruins right there inside of that theme park. The
public is welcome to tour those ruins during
daylight hours. And honestly, they're one of the more popular
attractions at this UK
Well, Cypress Gardens wasn't quite as far gone as the ruins at Alton Towers
were when Adrian arrived in Winter Haven nearly four years ago. But it was
clear that this 170-acre parcel needed some TLC ASAP.
"I mean, I remember when I was walking around the
grounds for the first time. And I went down to take a look at the Florida
state pool. Which is this outdoor pool that MGM had built back in the early
1950s, back when they were shooting an Esther Williams movie on location at Cypress
Gardens," Jones continued.
"Well, by the time I got there, Esther was long gone but a trio of
alligators had moved in. And it took us quite of a while to persuade those
gators to vacate the premises."
But even with how overgrown the botanical gardens had gotten and the general
disrepair of the pathways & benches through the backmost part of the
property, Adrian saw the obvious
potential of the place. A theme park that -- he hoped -- could be turned into
something that would only celebrate the Sunshine State's past but also become a
must-see attraction for the next generation of Florida tourists.
"And that -- in a nutshell -- is how Merlin
Entertainments went about transforming Cypress
Gardens into LEGOLAND Florida.
Wherever possible, we kept pieces of the previous version of this theme park --
things like the Island in the Sky & the water skiing
show -- in place. While at the same time, we brought in this wide array of
brand-new LEGO-based rides, shows & attractions. All to give Central
Florida visitors a reason to drive on out to Lake
Eloise and see all of the changes
that we'd made to the place," Jones said.
And the changes didn't stop once LEGOLAND Florida officially
opened to the public on October 15,
2011. Merlin Entertainments made sure that every six months or so,
something new was popping up at the park.
"It was all about striking just the right balance. For
the parents & grandparents who'd been here previously, we wanted them to
see & appreciate the various tributes to Cypress
Gardens that we'd scattered around
property. Things like those LEGO southern belles we have out by the gazebo. It
took over 60,000 plastic bricks to replicate the exact look of those
hoop-skirted dresses the Popes used to have their female employees wear,"
Jones stated. "But for the younger members of the family, we also added
things like our Star Wars Miniland in November of 2012 and the World of Chima
in July of 2013."
And that ongoing effort to mix the old with the new continues at LEGOLAND
Florida. For right on the heels of re-opening the newly restored Florida state
pool & Oriental Gardens back in March, this past Friday, this theme park
threw open the gates to DUPLO Valley.
Which is a brand-new farm-themed area geared towards toddlers ages 2 to 5.
Of course, there's still the matter of trying to persuade
people who are vacationing in & around Disney World, Universal Studios and
SeaWorld to journey all the way out to Polk
County to visit LEGOLAND Florida.
But Adrian believes that the two
key pieces to that puzzle will click into place by the middle of 2015.
"That's why the Orlando Eye will officially open for
business. And given that Merlin Entertainments will be operating all of the
attractions onsite there -- the Madame Tussauds, the Sea Life aquarium as well
as that 425 foot-tall observation wheel ... Well, we're going to start offering
bus service that will take people from I-Drive straight out to LEGOLAND Florida
from the Orlando Eye complex," Jones explained. "I think that
transportation option will really appeal to Central Florida
tourists who don't relish the idea of taking their rental car out on I-4 and
then trying to find their way back to Highway 27."
Just about that same time, LEGOLAND Florida expects to be opening its first
on-site hotel. This four-story tall structure will feature 152 Lego-themed
rooms. And once that multi-million project throws open its doors, Adrian
is hoping that this will change the public's perception of this Polk
County attraction. That they'll
then stop thinking of LEGOLAND Florida as a place that you visit for just a day
and start thinking of it as a destination resort.
"We're especially hopeful that international travelers -- those people who
already know how much fun our other LEGOLAND parks around the world are --
will, once the LEGOLAND Hotel opens, will start using this resort as their base
of operations during their next Central Florida vacation," Jones
continued. "And this LEGO-themed hotel -- along with its restaurant and
its pool -- will feature some spectacular views of Lake
Eloise. And when people look out at
that lake, they'll understand exactly why the Popes chose this spot in Central
Florida as the place to build Cypress
So as you can see -- over the past three years -- Merlin
Entertainments has been taking a methodical approach to revamping the Sunshine
State's first commercial tourist theme
park. Leaving just enough in place to please old Cypress Gardens fans (which
perhaps explains why -- just last month -- the 30-acre botanical preserve at
the very back of this property was added to the National Register of Historic
Places) while at the same time adding something new (like some character
meet-n-greets built around Warner Bros' surprise smash, "The LEGO
"But that just how we do things here in the LEGO
world," Jones laughed. "One brick at a time."
Which brings us to the obvious question: After that
brand-new LEGOLAND Florida Hotel opens in 2015, what piece of old Cypress
Gardens will Adrian
and the Merlin Entertainments team next try to revive / restore?
"Well, there used to be this fleet of canal boats which
would take Central Florida tourists on a leisurely cruise through the botanical
gardens," Jones mused. "Maybe we could look at bringing those
* This story originally appeared on Jim Hill's blog on HuffingtonPost.com;
Merlin have a number of visitor attractions that entertained the public before Disneyland:
1860- Alton Towers (as an estate with ornamental gardens) [ruined towers and gardens still in existence]
1931- Chessington zoo (now "world of adventures" [zoo still in existence]
1936- Cyprus Gardens (now Legoland) [gardens still in existence]
Two other Legolands also have are within 15 years of Disneyland:
1968- Legoland Billund
1969- Legoland Windsor (as Windsor Safari Park) [some rides from the safari park still operating]
They also run:
16xx- Warwick Castle [built 1069, opened to the public late 17th century]
1884- Madam Tussauds (London)
1894- Blackpool Tower
The I-Drive attractions are familiar Merlin brands including Madam Tussauds, Sealife and an "Eye" observation wheel.
There are two things. Creative innovation and uniqueness make LEGOLAND rise!
At Legoland California, they have a boat ride where you see plenty of lego figures around the lagoon. I don't see why they shouldn't incorporate a garden tour with legos.
They should consider a pickup site at Downtown Disney in Orlando. This would allow Disney guests to visit Legoland without trying to figure out where Orlando Eye is.