By Susan and Simon Veness
Think Mickey Mouse was the first to open a theme park in Florida? Think again. Fully 35 years before Disney opened the Magic Kingdom, visitors flocked to Central Florida for Cypress Gardens, the ‘Water Ski Capital of the World’ and home to beautiful Southern Belles and stunning botanical gardens.
In its heyday, Cypress Gardens hosted big-name Hollywood celebrities, introduced water skiing shows for the entertainment of World War II soldiers, and was a filming location for television commercials and feature-length movies. As more competition for the tourist dollar sprang up in Orlando, Cypress Gardens saw a decline in attendance and, in 2009, it closed its gates.
That’s when Merlin Entertainments stepped in, purchasing the land and the gardens for their new LEGOLAND Florida development, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since. Some of Cypress Gardens’ existing attractions were restored, new attractions, dining, and shopping were added, and now it’s a must-visit park, especially for youngsters.
But a key element was missing, and that was the gardens themselves. On 5 March, LEGOLAND proudly welcomed Orlando media to the park for the opening of the iconic Florida Pool and the contemplative atmosphere of the fully-restored Oriental Garden. Surrounded by oranges (a tribute to the citrus photos made famous by Cypress Gardens’ oFriginal owner, Dick Pope, Sr.) the Florida Pool, built for the 1953 movie Easy To Love starring Esther Williams, was filled with 9,800 floating bricks, while Southern Belles strolled the pathways leading to the pool, welcoming guests with gracious Southern hospitality.
During the ribbon cutting ceremony, LEGOLAND General Manager Adrian Jones, who hails from Stoke, said, “What a symbolic and beautiful setting, probably the best place I’ve ever given a speech from in the many speeches I’ve given since we opened LEGOLAND Florida. We fully intended to get to this point today, where we had the last two remaining areas of the gardens open to the general public. And what better than the Florida Pool, which is probably the most iconic shot at Cypress Gardens.”
“We knew this day would come,” he continued. “We did not open the gardens with the park because they were in a pretty bad state of disrepair, and we knew we had to focus on the banyan tree, and on repairing the bridges. There are now gas mains under the banyan to heat it in winter. There is a lot you don’t see in the present gardens, but LEGOLAND always had Cypress Gardens at heart, and that makes the park different and special.”
Jones recalled his initial view of the gardens. “When I first came here, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up with the beauty of the gardens. Here we have a national treasure.” There were challenges ahead, he recalled. “First we had a couple of gators to remove!”
When it came time to refurbish the Pool, Jones says, “We cleaned it, restored the tiles, got the water circulating. But this is not the end. The next stage is adding sympathetic LEGOLAND elements to the gardens, and trails for children to enjoy that will also give parents a respite from the hustle and bustle of the park. The canals are next, and we may add the boats again. We will also bring back the topiaries. We’ve got them, but they were in bad shape. They’ll be restored and we’ll use them in future.”
There is a sense of pride surrounding the Pool, Jones added. “People have lots of memories of the Pool. A lot of gardeners who worked on this project remember it. I can’t tell you how many people skinny-dipped in this pool!”
Bob Gernert, former Winter Haven Chamber Executive Director and Cypress Gardens historian, also spoke during the ceremony. “Good morning! Welcome to Cypress Gardens! The most exciting thing about this is it makes the gardens whole again. It makes it exactly what it was when Mr. and Mrs. Pope put the concept together so many years ago. When you walk through, take the time to see the Oriental Garden. It’s just stunning, and a very reflective place.”
“Some of you may know that Dick Pope had a formula for promotions and for his success,” Gernert went on. “He called it OPM-squared, and that was, ‘our photographic material times other people’s money.’ What Mr. Pope didn’t do was spend a lot of money on advertising, because what he did was make photographs and news reels and television shows and movies that took the Cypress Gardens story all over the world. When [I]Easy To Love[/I] was filmed here, this pool was only used for a matter of seconds in the movie. After it was over, Mr. Pope had them fill it with oranges, put a queen in the middle of it, took a picture of it, and sent it out to newspapers so they would run that photograph, and he continued to use the pool for promotional purposes. Of course, one of the employees said, ‘Thank god he didn’t want it filled with watermelon!’
“Mr. Pope’s formula was three things,” Gernert added. “He promoted Florida, he promoted citrus and he promoted Cypress Gardens. He mixed those three things together all the time.”
With that, Jones, Gernert, and two of the lovely Southern Belles cut the ribbon, officially opening the Florida Pool.
Beginning on 6 March, guests will be able to stroll through the grounds of Cypress Gardens and enjoy the area to the fullest. We wandered to the Oriental Garden, a peaceful retreat with a reflective pool where a giant Buddha sits in quiet contemplation. Just as many of the landscaping team—and, indeed, the residents of Polk County, where LEGOLAND is located—have memories of the gardens, and we too had memories. Good ones, from a time when the park was thriving. And sad ones of the last time we visited, just before Cypress Gardens closed for good.
We were taken through the gardens in the final weeks of the former park’s existence, and were devastated to see the gardens gasping their dying breath. So it was with great joy that we wandered through the immense beauty of these fully restored and obviously well-loved settings, where the sight of the romantic white gazebo, once the icon of the park and location of countless weddings, made us feel all was right again under the careful cultivation of the park’s new owners.
ASK SIMON AND SUSAN
Julie Young: We are going November 29 for 10 days. Will the Christmas celebrations and market at SeaWorld be on every day, or is it select days?
Susan and Simon: SeaWorld’s Christmas celebrations are on select nights November 21-December 31. Generally the select nights are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and the events become nightly from approximately mid-December. Some elements, such as decorations around the park, will be up every day. SeaWorld has not yet announced the date for the transition to nightly shows and marketplace events.
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