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The Pruning of Cypress Gardens

The Pruning of Cypress Gardens

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Cypress Gardens celebrated its "Grand Reopening" on December 19. I was there a few days earlier and the park was nowhere near ready. Nonetheless, what we lovingly call "the mainstream media," greeted the event with fawning coverage. What were they smoking?

The sad fact of the matter is that Cypress Gardens Adventure Park (as it has been misleadingly relabeled) is a major disappointment. Those who knew and loved the old park will be shocked and saddened by how much it has been diminished. Those new to the park will wonder what all the fuss was about. And the new, younger demographic that the park hopes to draw has plenty of bigger, better, funner alternatives just a short drive away.

First, some background for those who start getting the shakes whenever they step off Disney property. Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven, about an hour's drive southwest of Orlando, is widely credited as the first Florida theme park. Yes, attractions like Silver Springs predate it, but that was a mere matter of capitalizing on an existing natural wonder, something that had been going on for centuries.

What *** Pope did at Cypress Gardens was fundamentally different. In 1936, he took a bug-infested cypress swamp on the shores of Lake Eloise and transformed it into a man-made floral paradise. It didn't strike a lot of people as a great idea. Pope was nicknamed the Swami of the Swamp, but like many a visionary since, he saw something nobody else got. Within five years, Cypress Gardens was drawing half a million visitors a year.

Pope did it with publicity - free publicity. He staged photo shoots of pretty girls in his picture perfect park and mailed copies by the thousands, in gardenia-scented envelopes, to newspapers and magazines throughout the country. The media took the bait. One photograph of a skyborne water skier appeared in 3,670 publications. Of course, Cypress Gardens was mentioned in the caption. Pope lured filmmakers and television stars to Cypress Gardens. Esther Williams, Mike Douglas, and scores of others used Cypress Gardens as a backdrop. He staged outrageous stunts like playing the piano for a ballerina while both of them were being towed behind a speedboat, she on water skis, he on a piano-sized platform. Taking a cue from the Miss America pageant, he started crowning a new queen of something or other on an almost daily basis. All of it became grist for Pope's voracious publicity mill. Pope and his wife were also inspired improvisers, creating new marketing strategies on the spur of the moment. Some of Cypress Gardens' most revered traditions, like the water ski shows and the Southern Belles, came about almost by accident.

The story seemed to come to an end in 2003, when Cypress Gardens closed, seemingly forever, a victim to changing tastes, declining attendance, and mounting financial losses. The tourism drought caused by the attacks of 9/11 was the final straw. It looked like the park's prized lakeside real estate would be turned into luxury home sites. But the park had its fierce partisans and the idea of Cypress Gardens refused to die.

Enter Kent Buescher, the owner of a moderately successful regional amusement park in Valdosta, Georgia. Buescher put together a deal to "save" the park and an ambitious refurbishment and expansion schedule was announced. Eventually, and after being slammed by two hurricanes, the project cost a reported $45 million.Alas, Buescher's business model for the new park seems to be to overprice and underdeliver. Whether he will be successful remains to be seen. However, I am not terribly sanguine about Cypress Gardens' prospects for long-term survival.

Much of what made Cypress Gardens so beloved to its fans (and, therefore, less than competitive in today's superheated theme park market) remains, but in a much truncated form. If it couldn't draw enough visitors when it was great, what makes Buescher think it will draw visitors now that it is merely so-so? Moreover, the new elements that Buescher has added are, in a word, underwhelming. Yes, there are now rides, but nothing you'd drive out of your way to experience.

Of the preexisting elements in the park the original Botanical Gardens were the most iconic. They were an over-the-top extravaganza of riotous color and lush greenery. They are much the same today, it's just that there seems to be less where there once was more. How much of this is due to hurricane damage and how much to conscious redesign is hard to say. However, I get the uneasy impression that a decision has been made to cut back in the interests of easier maintenance.

The Wedding Gazebo is still there and the vista from across the big lagoon is still lovely. Unfortunately, the lush backdrop of towering trees is now ragged, with gaping holes that open onto the area where a new water park is still being constructed. Perhaps in time the gaps will fill in. At least, this is one area of the gardens where they seem to have done quite a bit of work. Elsewhere there are signs of cutbacks. The French Garden and the Rose Garden are gone, although the statuary remains, and other areas seem to be slated for easy-to-maintain groundcover.

Of course, these deficiencies may be the result of the hurricanes and the park may have plans to restore the original gardens to their former glory. Let's hope so. However, a garden this size requires a massive horticultural staff and Cypress Gardens used to have one. They put on spectacular floral festivals throughout the year, one every six weeks or so. For those who love gardening, these were a major draw that was supplemented by regular live presentations by gardening experts dispensing horticultural wisdom.

All that's gone now. The Flora-Dome that used to house many of these festivals has been transformed into the park's entrance area. The massive array of behind-the-scenes greenhouses (unseen by most visitors) is now the parking lot. All of which leads me to believe that the new Cypress Gardens has neither the will nor the wherewithal to hew to the same high standards of the old park.

Another icon of the old Cypress Gardens was the water ski show, which always got the highest five-star rating in my guidebooks. The highlight was a human pyramid, in which a bottom row of six men (on water skis, mind you) hoisted six "Aqua Maids" aloft, the one on top waving a little American flag. The owners of the new Cypress Gardens, it turns out, didn't want to pay for the liability insurance such a stunt demanded. Nor did they want to employ six Aqua Maids. Or six men, for that matter.

The new water ski show, while not bad, is a shadow of its former self. There are now just two pretty girls in the company, which to my unreconstructed heterosexual view of things, is a decided step backwards. The previous cast of twelve has been cut back to about seven. It used to be that the Cypress Gardens water ski show was the best in the world. Today, it's just another show.

Similar bean counting is in evidence over at the Royal Palm Theater (formerly The Palace). As before, there's an ice show in this lovely 800-seat space, but like the water ski show it has been cut to the bone. There used to be some excellent Russian-trained skaters in this show; today there's just one Russian name in the cast list. There are now just four chorus parts and three principal skaters, only two of whom do the really fancy stuff. Once again, it's a matter of the same but less.

Okay, so maybe this old-fashioned stuff was never a big draw to begin with and people won't particularly mind that what they're getting today is just a pale reflection of the good old days. But what really did in Cypress Gardens, its critics said, was the perception that it was a park for the blue-haired set, with nothing to attract kids and teens. One of Buescher's greatest innovations was his announcement that the new, rejuvenated Cypress Gardens would be a "rides" park. Well, sorta.

For me, the best thing that can be said about Adventure Grove, the new section that contains most of the rides, is that it is set off in such a way that it's easy to totally ignore it. If you do venture in, you may ask yourself what all the hype was about. The thirty-some rides here seldom rise above the level you'd expect in a well-appointed state fair or a traveling carnival. Yes, there are three roller coasters, but they barely make it out of the kiddie category.

Again, I had to ask myself what were they thinking? The "old" Cypress Gardens had added a section of kiddie rides (now gone) and kiddies, it seems to me, are the ones most likely to visit with the grandparents who were and still seem to be the park's prime demographic. Then, too, the "old" park had installed a small water park area (also now gone) that was finding a willing audience among families in the nearby "drive market." So if these innovations couldn't halt Cypress Gardens' slide into the red, how will adding, at great expense, a few dozen piddly rides that older kids will laugh at as they speed by en route to the mega-coasters at Busch Gardens Tampa and Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure?

And speaking of great expense, one thing that particularly irked me on my visit was the price being asked for admission. Now a $34.95 adult admission may not seem outrageous, compared to the Orlando parks, where one-day tickets are pushing the $60 mark. And, indeed, when the park is fully operational, the price might be justified. But considering that large swaths of the park are not yet open, it struck me as something of a marketing blunder.

Nature's Way, the series of low-key animal attractions that was one of the nicest things in the old park, is not open. Indeed, an unauthorized stroll through it reveals that work hasn't even begun on refurbishing this section. Several shows that are announced in the park brochure are likewise not ready for prime time. The Wings of Wonder butterfly conservatory was still shuttered when I visited, as were most of the shops and the major restaurants. The Conservatory Gardens , located just past Wings of Wonder, were barren, with no indication of when, if ever, they would be returned to their prime. Apparently some sort of boast ride on Lake Eloise is planned, but it is not ready. Not even all the rides in the much-heralded Adventure Grove were open. Add it all up and it's not hard to see why some people might feel the asking price was a tad high. A lower price, touted as a Special Preview Price, might have generated some goodwill and got some positive word of mouth going. (By the way, the one-day price for kids (3 to 9) and seniors (55+) is $29.95.)

Similarly irksome is the annual pass policy. Annual passes are a reasonable $69.95, but unlike every other park I know that offers an annual pass, parking is not included. You can either pay $7 each time you visit (something that makes no sense if you will be visiting often enough to get an annual pass) or you can pony up $25 for an annual parking pass, that requires an ugly pink sticker on your windshield. So if the effective cost of an annual pass is $94.95 ($69.95 + $25), why not just say so?

Of course, even at $94.95, the annual pass is a terrific bargain if you live within driving distance of Cypress Gardens and are a fan of the sort of musical entertainment they dish up. This is one element of the old park that the new management has not only retained but actually improved on. The new Star Haven Amphitheater, an open-air field with bleachers at the back seemed way too big to me, but I was assured by park regulars that they packed the place for Kenny Rogers. There are some 35 concerts scheduled for 2005 and they include acts like Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, Chubby Checker, and the Smothers Brothers. If there's a show scheduled when you visit, it's included in the one-day admission; annual passholders get into all of them.

There's more to the new Cypress Gardens than I have space for here. I have posted my complete, if somewhat jaundiced, guide to the park as it existed in mid-December, 2004, on my web site. It's in PDF format and can be downloaded here.

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