Human pyramid water skiers.

Cypress Gardens - Classic (Gone)

Field review by the editors.

Winter Haven, Florida

The classic Florida tourist attraction, Cypress Gardens, is gone forever, replaced by a Legoland in 2011.

The Pope family opened Cypress Gardens near Winter Haven in 1936 as a showcase for what would eventually number over 8,000 varieties of plants. Dick Pope, recognized as the Father of Florida Tourism, and his wife Julie (the "Green Thumb" and the brains behind many CG innovations) added electric boats in 1938 to tour the tropical canals.

But Cypress Gardens' two signature elements -- water ski shows and Southern Belles -- developed out of necessity. In 1940, to distract visitors near the entrance from looking at a huge, dead vine killed in a cold snap, Mrs. Pope instructed a female worker to don an Antebellum dress and flirt with visitors. The tradition of beautiful Belles wandering the grounds grew...

Southern Belle.

The water ski shows started in 1943, while Dick was serving in WWII. When soldiers on leave saw a local newspaper photo of a water skier, they mistakenly believed Cypress Gardens featured a "water show." Mrs. Pope quickly assembled her children and friends to perform for the men, and word-of-mouth attracted 800 soldiers the following weekend.

The show and Gardens flourished through the 1950s.

Footage from the Jack Kirby Film Archives captures an elaborate 1956 performance staged for bleachers filled with tourists. All the core elements are here -- the graceful solo and duo ballets, the crazy ramp jumps, the comedy-relief clown, a guy skiing on mutant oversized feet, and the human pyramid skiers. It was a time when shapely lady water skiers could wave a Confederate flag and smile for the cameras.

Almost thirty years later, the show we witnessed was slicker, the formula for entertainment still solidly in place: scantily clad skiers, stunt showmanship, plenty of clown hi jinks, and Banana George, a guy who skied on mutant oversized feet.

We appreciated the dog driving a motorboat, and the shutterbug "tourist" who fell out of the bleachers and into the lake. So did the children around us, gripped by seizures of laughter.

Southern Belles strolled the flora-crowded swamp paths, and bathing beauties still posed along the edge of a Florida-shaped pool.

Boat ride.

A month after our 1985 visit, the Pope family sold the business to publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. After some improvements, HBJ sold it to Busch Entertainment Corporation in 1989, who built more shops, and amusements. In 1995, the park was sold again, this time to locals. Attempts were made to appeal to both elder Snow Birders and young families.

"Not only do we have Dick Pope's legacy to live up to, but we purchased a Florida tourism icon that is as well branded as Proctor and Gamble," said Bill Reynolds, president and CEO.

For the gray-haired crowd, CG opened up a historical Cypress Roots Museum in 1996, celebrating 60 years of water skiing and Florida fun. A collection of antique radios from the 20's also found a home here. For nature lovers, Wings of Wonder, the butterfly conservatory, featured 1,000 free-flying butterflies. For the spiritual, the Biblical Garden featured plants named in the Bible. "An ice skating show - "Moscow on Ice" joined the schedule.

Cypress Gardens skiers.

In the meantime, new billboard campaigns touted "SKI XTREME," a new fast-action ski show. Island in the Sky was a 153-foot tower featuring a circular observation platform and a cheesy snow-capped volcano. "Banana Boy," a 14- foot albino python, provided reptilian thrills in the park zoo.

In 1999, they added an authentic paddle wheel boat for sightseeing tours and "romantic brunch and dinner cruises."

After Sept. 11th, $6 million in the red, it just wasn't enough, and the park closed.

At the end of 2004, a revamped Cypress Gardens theme park opened. Southern Belles still strolled the grounds, but the human pyramid of water skiers had been eliminated to cut operating costs. Splash Island, a water park, was added in 2005, and will continue in Cypress Gardens' current incarnation.

Also see: Home Movies: 1956 Show | Video: 1985 Show

Cypress Gardens - Classic (Gone)

Directions:
Off Hwy 27.

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December 18, 2014

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