Saving Cypress Gardens

I remember Cypress Gardens. Our family would trek through Central Florida annually and it was a regular stop. So, yes, I remember Cypress Gardens. From the lush foliage to the amazing water skiing show to the leisurely boat ride through the swampy botanical warmth peppered with the beautiful Southern belles dressed to the nines -- how could I forget? However, in time that charm was lapped by just about every other roadside attraction save for getting perpetually gnawed on by mosquitoes at Bok Tower.

So when I eventually got married and had kids of my own I broke with family tradition. We lived just three hours away and made trips out to Disney World and Universal Orlando every couple of months yet I never went to Cypress Gardens. My parents still went, though. They even took their granddaughters -- my three nieces -- from time to time so that they too could get dolled up like Southern belles complete with twirling parasols and puffy hoop skirts for pictures they will always treasure. Not me. I had two young boys. Maybe, when they're older. Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe that's why I surprised to be saddened when Cypress Gardens closed down in 2003. I guess I didn't realize the sentimental value I had in a place that I spent the balance of my adult life avoiding. Was it regret that I hadn't passed on the treks like some prized family heirloom? Was it me just kicking myself for the procrastination?

I'm not sure. All I know is that, in so many ways, Kent Buescher will save Cypress Gardens. Just as he was able to grow a sleepy animal park just south of Valdosta into a bustling tourist destination as Wild Adventures, he may be one of the few people out there who get it.

Traditionalists may cringe at the thought of the lush beauty that was Cypress Gardens being painted over with screaming roller coasters and low-tech family rides. Heresy! Oh, how quickly they forget that the centuries old splendor that is Tivoli Gardens -- a world-class amusement park in Denmark that seamlessly marries rides with nature's beauty and served as Walt Disney's inspiration for Disneyland -- started out as a botanical garden. Knott's Berry Farm was indeed little more than a strawberry stand. Countless other thriving amusement parks started out as modest trolley parks. As times and tastes change, the flexible tourist destinations are the ones that survive.

Ask the residents of Winter Haven, many who make up the 500 who lost their jobs when the money-losing attraction closed last April, if they would mind a moderate-sized wood coaster weaving about if it means new jobs. Ask my parents if they would mind a few classic flat rides whirling about if it means that they will have the chance to take their fourth granddaughter to get the belle treatment. Ask me if I would like a chance to redeem myself for abandoning the park, simply because it abandoned me.

Will it work? Kent will be investing $35 million over the next year and change in upgrading the park and updating it with select rides and attractions. Anyone who saw Epcot's $120 million tab for Mission: Space knows that Cypress Gardens will never be a mighty rival to the billion-dollar parks an hour's drive North. Circus World tried to blend amusement park rides into its carnival-themed fabric. It was later refashioned as Boardwalk and Baseball to cash in on area's popularity as a spring training baseball site. It failed both times.

So why does Kent have a shot? For starters, for the nearly five million residents that live South of Winter Haven there is no regional amusement park. You can't drive through Pennsylvania or Ohio without passing a park every few exits but Florida -- despite its year-round park-friendly weather -- is completely untapped below the Orlando waistline. The days of rich retiring snowbirds dotting both coasts of South Florida have been overtaken by thrill-seeking youth and young families who gravitate to the area for its beaches and South Beach scene. Yes, Cypress Gardens is quite the haul from the art deco of Miami and the revitalized downtown Fort Lauderdale but the new Cypress Gardens will be the closest amusement park to these and many other areas brimming with youth on the Gold Coast.

How hungry is South Florida for a park with traditional amusements? The Fair Expo comes to Dade Country for half a month every March. Per capita spending, including admission, ride tickets and the various concessions, are comparable to what traditional amusement parks draw. Last year Fair Expo drew 770,000 paying guests. That was well over what Cypress Gardens attracted -- over the course of an entire year.

Florida has long been rumored to be the next stomping grounds for a Six Flags park. From Miami to Jacksonville to the heart of Orlando itself, the reason the gossip swirls is because it makes perfect sense. Beyond a small pier-anchored park in the Panama City Beach panhandle one of the country's largest states does not have a worthy alternative to the $54 gated admissions being charged by the 8 parks in the tightly concentrated Central Florida region.

It is rides -- and not beautiful gardens -- that drive annual pass sales. It is rides -- and not remnants of Florida's few remaining roadside attractions -- that will give the park a shot to reclaim its waning popularity.

Kent gets it. I would be overjoyed if he continued his renovated empire Southward, rescuing the fading relics of Miami Seaquarium or Butterfly World or Lion Country Safari. Miami's Metrozoo recently announced that it is looking to tack on a water park and an entertainment center, followed by an amusement park and a hotel. All it needs is an experienced, interested operator. Kent? Got a minute?

All I can assure you is that the day that the new Cypress Gardens Adventure Park reopens you will find a family of four from Miami ready to pony up for annual passes. If Kent won't neglect the park, we won't neglect to patronize the park.

Life is all about second chances and tweaking traditions for the sake of evolutionary survival. You should really see the beautiful flowers of Cypress Gardens. When you do, thank a coaster.

- Rick Munarriz

Cypress Gardens reopened as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in December of 2004. For more park information check out

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