The beauty of Cypress Gardens cannot be denied. The overwhelming variety of plants is a botanist's version of heaven. These plants, tended and displayed by an army of gardeners, highlight and decorate the canals and garden alcoves providing a vista of color and texture both commanding and soothing. They take one back to an earlier time when time didn't matter.
May 19, 2003
As I write it's been 5 weeks since the startling news came and I still can't believe it's over. So many memories, so many good times and laughter. So much beauty and history all coming to an end? Then, before we could even make plans to go one more time, it was over. On Sunday, April 12th, Cypress Gardens closed for the last time. They said the it was because attendance was so negatively affected by the September 11th attack and never recovered. Even that final March, it was off over 40,000 from the previous year. A loss that great, when attendance only totaled 750,000 to 1 million a year, was too much to handle. As losses piled up over $6 million, the sad decision was made.
My own experience with the gardens goes back to 1994 when Carol and I first visited as a day trip in the RV we purchased to make traveling with dialysis easier. But the history of Cypress Gardens goes back some 70 years to 1932 when Dick Pope, at the time a publicity manager for Johnson Seahorse outboard motors began to purchase land and rebuild canals around Lake Eloise.
His wife, Julie, exercised her "green thumb" with Dick building walkways and diverting landscaping around obstacles. Eventually some 8000 plants from more than 90 countries would fill the collection. When in 1940 a freeze killed many plants and smudge pots set out to protect the others drove visitors away, Julie had one of the girls put on an colorful old-fashioned dress and stand out front to invite visitors in. With that the signature "Southern Belles" of Cypress Gardens were born and continued to stroll the grounds and casually sit in the scenic gardens to the day of closing.
The famous water ski shows began in 1943 when Julie got the kids together to stage a show for visitors and before long the Gardens were dubbed the "water ski capitol of the world". Many professional water skiers got their start there along with a variety of firsts as
new routines were tried and became staples of competition. The signature ski pyramid which grew to include 12 skiers and four levels was the traditional closer for every program.
Celebrities and Hollywood movie producers discovered Cypress
Gardens in the late '40s, '50s and '60s. Full-length features including
"On an Island With You," parts of "Moon Over Miami," and a special
Florida shaped pool was constructed on the banks of Lake Eloise for
Esther Williams film "Easy to Love." The pool remained a point of
interest in the garden tour.
From 1985 through 1995 the park was sold by the Pope family into
corporate ownership when two different companies invested in and
expanded the parks offerings. In 1995 the Gardens were purchased
by local managers and returned to local ownership. During this time
new attractions were added keeping in the style of Florida's original theme park. Magic shows, music events featuring big bands such as the Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller Orchestras and others.
Moscow on Ice performed several times daily bringing abbreviated versions of such classics as Peter and the Wolf and the Nutcracker as well as original works showcasing a variety of skating styles and the cultural heritage of the Russian performers. While Moscow on Ice performed in the theatre, under the big top another troupe performed a traditional Russian circus act including magic, gymnastics, feats of strength and skill interspersed with humor and audience participation.
Through out the park were neat things to discover. Be it the zoo with it alligators and marsupials, the bird of prey show, the Old Time Radio Museum, the Gone With The Wind Museum or the largest model train display I've ever seen, each time we went back we
found new discoveries missed previously.
Though the Gardens didn't have the glitz and glitter of the
Disneyworlds or Universal Studios, it had it's own charm.
The one concession to the joy rides of the other parks was
the Eye in the Sky. This giant saucer atop a long.
cantilevered arm would take you some 150 feet in the air
and spin you around slowly to enjoy an aerial view of the
200 acres of breathtaking beauty below.
Cypress Gardens became the vehicle for young brides to
produce fairy tale weddings among the flowers and canals.
For young girls to dress up in the flowing gowns of Southern Belles and stroll for a day with their entourage of family and friends chasing after them. Elegant in their regalia they posed for pictures as friends and strangers jockeyed for the perfect shot.
The Carousel and other rides of the Carnival midway along with the games of skill brought laughter to children and adults as the rode, watched, played, and relived an earlier period when TV wasn't so prevalent, when computers and Play Stations didn't exist. A time when a child's mind was fertile and their imagination could conceive of wonders of foreign lands and escapades explored without the need of video and high tech sound.
One reason the closing of Cypress Gardens affected me
so is because of the many memories associated with
this beautiful park. Carol and I made several trips there,
including special events such as the autumn Chrysan-
themum and Christmastime Poinsettia festivals. The
Spring Lights shows and events highlighting otherwise
minor events to the other theme parks such as
Mother's and Father's day and a Easter weekend and
sunrise services made Cypress Gardens a special place with special, traditional values.
The walks through the Garden on the nature trail was always a peaceful closer to the day as we strolled through the heavy, exotic foliage and sat in wonder under the huge Banyon tree which spread some 150 - 200 feet across. The Sausage trees, palms and bananas, the Oriental gardens and of course the beautiful gazebo brought wonder, and ease as we struggle with the cares of life and the insidious disease coursing through Carol's body. It was the giant waterfall that inspired Carol on our final trip there to say, "you can make one of those." Out of that came the waterfall in our backyard garden just three weeks before her death.
Carol's favorite spot in all of Cypress Gardens was the
Wings of Wonder butterfly conservatory. This beautiful,
temperature and humidity controlled indoor garden was
home to a large variety of butterflies that never ceased to
bring sparkle to her eyes and light up her face as these
small creatures reminded her of the power of God to over-
come death in resurrection. Even that final trip, some 6
weeks before her frail body succumbed to disease, she bub-
bled as the butterflies landed on her while she sat in her wheelchair.
While the some of the memories of Cypress Gardens are bitter sweet, others remain joyful and untarnished as the Gardens were one of the places Karen and I visited while on our brief honeymoon. The pictures say it all as the pain of loss we both had experienced was replaced by new love and sadness by joy. The new life found in the promise of the butterfly emerged in our lives.
I was hoping to schedule another visit in the near future when out of the blue, the bad news came and those thoughts of going back came crashing down. Now, it's over. Cypress Gardens, and era, is gone.
Or is it? There are reports in the news that Gov. Bush wants the state to look into purchasing 70 acres to preserve at least a part of the original gardens. A group, Friends of Cypress Gardens, is pushing to build support to that end. But sadly, the owners say the land not purchased will be turned into condos. Then, another report that the owner of Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, GA is exploring purchasing the property, spending some $30 million the first year to develop the park, adding new rides. No matter which scenario, Cypress Gardens will never be the same. Still yet, to be preserved in part is better than to be lost in whole. We can only hope, and wait.