Skip to comments.Cypress Gardens to close (Florida's First Theme Part Osama Victim)
Posted on 04/23/2003 5:41:23 AM PDT by MalcolmS
WINTER HAVEN -- Cypress Gardens is closing its doors for good on Sunday because of declining attendance and a faltering tourism industry.
Florida's first theme park, which put Polk County on the map when it was founded 67 years ago, will officially shut down at 7 p.m., a decision the park's owners had virtually no control over, officials said.
According to a statement released Thursday afternoon, the park's attendance never recovered from the Sept. 11 attacks, which severely impacted the state's tourism industry.
March attendance was down 42,000 visitors from the same time last year, the statement says, and the threat of terrorism and war in Iraq have "impacted the park's ability to sustain itself."
"It is mandated by our lack of funds to sustain the normal operations," the statement says. "These diminished funds have impacted the company and placed it in this faltering and distressed situation. This distressed situation has been created as previously mentioned by unforeseen factors beyond the control of Cypress Gardens management and efforts."
Almost the entire staff will be laid off, with just a skeleton crew securing the property and wrapping up park affairs.
Employees were told about the closing Thursday afternoon.
Stacy Huey, assistant marketing manager for the park, said around 2:30 p.m. that she "just found out five minutes ago."
"This is a total shock to everyone outside of management," a noticeably upset Huey said.
Many of the employees are "really upset," said Shelly Tandbery, who owns and operates the park's dinner boat attraction, Southern Breeze.
"There's been rumors, but not to this extent," Tandbery said.
Tandbery said she and her husband hope to continue operating their dinner boat business, which they've been running under a contract with Cypress Gardens for more than four years, and fulfill the contracts they already have with groups.
"We are going to somehow try to continue with the operations there," she said.
Ticket and passholders have also been left in the lurch with the closing.
Winter Haven resident Tom Campana said he just spent $159 on two annual passes a month ago, but was told to write to an address about getting a possible refund.
The entire situation stinks, he said.
"I just feel like I shouldn't write to some address," he said. "They wouldn't even give me a contact person."
The park's phone recording had not been updated Thursday afternoon to reflect the news, stating, "Thank you for calling beautiful Cypress Gardens." The park's Web site, www.cypressgardens.com, was off-line.
And county officials, many of whom are in Tallahassee attending Polk County Day at the capitol, were also just hearing the news.
County Manager Jim Keene was reached in Tallahassee and said he'd just heard the news around 3 p.m. but didn't know much about the closing.
"I'm sure there'll be an effect on (tourism)," Keene said. "I'm not sure what their numbers are as far as attendance, but they've been struggling for the past few years. I'm sure there'll be an impact, along with everything else that's happening with tourism."
County Commissioner Charles Richardson, who represents the district Cypress Gardens is located in, had not heard about the park's closing when reached shortly after 4 p.m. in Tallahassee and responded by saying, "Good gracious."
"It put a shock into me," he said. "I hope it's not a permanent condition."
Richardson, a Polk County native, said Cypress Gardens has "been a valuable vehicle for so many people for so long," that "it's just a part of what we are in Polk County, in the Winter Haven area."
The city of Winter Haven issued a statement late Thursday afternoon stating that city officials are "saddened by the difficult decision" Reynolds and Cypress Gardens management "had to make in ceasing normal park operations, but understand you can only sustain losses for a certain period of time before certain business decisions must be made.
"We are proud of Cypress Gardens' rich and long history in our community and wish the management and employees the best," the statement concluded.
Cypress Gardens was founded by Dick Pope in 1936, but was sold to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1985, who sold it to Busch Entertainment Corp. in 1989.
Reynolds and six others bought the park from Busch in 1995, but the owners reportedly had losses of $6 million over the past eight years.
The park had its niche in local tourist attractions by offering tropical plants and flowers, world-famous water ski shows and Southern belles in antebellum dresses. The park also catered to oversees couples getting married, and during its heyday was used as a backdrop for movies, attracting celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Esther Williams Johnny Carson and many others.
(Excerpt) Read more at polkonline.com ...
We own a house on a nice golf-course not far from Cypress Gardens (and about 20 minutes from Disney) that we rent out to vacationers on a weekly basis, and we've definitely noticed the drop-off in business.
Not only that, but we have been reverse-boycotted by the French. A French family that had contracted to stay for 3 weeks this summer called to cancel during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
How's this for an FR Fundraiser? If any FReepers are going to vacation in Florida and support the US Tourism industry (instead of going to France, Germany, or say, San Francisco), FReepmail me for the house website. If you like it, negotiate your best price, and I'll contribue $50 to FR for every week booked.
With young kids, I've already got too many choices between Disney, Universal, Sea World and Busch Gardens. With only a week to spend (as well as limited buck) Cypress Gardens wouldn't be on my radar screen, like it might have been 30 years ago.
I don't deny the premise that 9-11 and the war on terror have had a negative effect on tourism. That's well documented.
But I'm not sure it was the death sentence for Cypress Gardens.
Correct me... and 'splain... if I'm wrong, but wouldn't the law of supply and demand indicate otherwise?
My grandparents owned a business in Winter Haven. I remember as a child going to the Gardens in the 70's and some of the same entertainment has been booked over and over and over for years. It is as if they expected the "seasoned citizen" population of the 1970's to continue to be around into the present day.
The day the announcement was made one WH city official (can't remember the name) made a remark to the paper about the war in Iraq being the last straw. As if people were dying to see that upcoming Roy Clark concert but were somehow prevented from travelling because of our victory.
When my son was small we enjoyed Cypress Gardens because it was "low key" with no lines.
After our fill of Disney Parks, we found that a season pass to Busch Gardens was the best value (visit once during a certain month and get a pass for the entire year), and had lots of things that kids enjoy so we get a pass every year to Busch Gardens in Tampa.
Now that he's a teenager, Universal would be his preference, but we save those visits for "special occasions" and only get to Universal about once every other year.
True, and a Debbie Boone concert isn't either.
Prices have already been effectively lowered, but there is a two-tier pricing structure in effect.
For example, Busch Gardens (Tampa) and SeaWorld (Orlando) have been offering a two-for-one deal for tourists. Buy one day (about $50) and come back free for a second day. And most people really do need 2 days to see everything.
However, Florida residents can pay for one day and come back free all year. You still get dinged for parking etc. About the same time this was done, it seems like food prices inside the park (not allowed to bring your own picnic) went up by about 50%, and most new construction involves souvenier shops. It appears that the business model is shifting away from admission fees and towards inside-the-park sales.
In a way this is true. But if you live in Florida (as we do), you'll probably be confronted by nature on a regular basis. We live in a large city, but near a nature preserve.
Alligators are a common sight (we've even had to chase one out of our back yard), and we see bald eagles, egrit, herons, rosette spoonbills, quaker parrots (lots of those noisy birds), osprey, owls, racoons, opposums, gopher tortoise, etc. on an almost daily basis.
So only tourists would find "Florida nature" a real draw. If a Floridian wants to see an alligator, why pay money, just go to your nearest golf course.
Busch Gardens has a pretty impressive zoo, and I think that adds to it's attractiveness as a theme park. Much better than the Disney zoo.
I may be in contact with you sooner or later re: the house rental. My folks live in Lake Wales; my mother was born there in 1929 (my grandparents moved there right after The Crash because my grandpa took the City Clerk job - it was a job after all ;-), and my parents live there now after moving back there in the mid 1980's, but don't have room to house our family when we visit. Dick Pope was a very good friend of my grandpa's and we used to visit there every summer of my childhood since my grandparents were given all-season passes (my grandpa was a big tourist promoter in the central FLA area).
Also, my grandparents were also at the opening ceremony of the Bok Singing Tower where they had a dinner with "Silent Cal" Coolidge who was there. Have you ever done "Spook Hill" in Lake Wales? I'm telling you - you haven't lived unless you have! ;-)
Sorry - bzzzzzzzzzt. Wrong answer. (Reference my post above.) I loved the place when I was a kid - used to spend a LOT of time there every summer when we'd visit our grandparents who ran a ma & pa motel in nearby Lake Wales. I loved the ski show AND the gardens. Unbelievably beautiful. The Botanic Gardens in the Chicago area is a big hit with the kids - the schools around here are always getting the kids there for Field Trips. I have yet to hear any complaints about that from my kids or any of their friends for that matter.
The REAL value is in the gardens and its proximity to the lake. If the State of FLA takes it over, it should get some sort of State Park designation. Entry fees would support its maintenance on that level.
Wow! Talk about local connections.
My wife's Mom stayed in Lake Wales last winter. We drove past the Spook Hill sign many times, but never took the opportunity. I'll be sure to next time--at least the price is right.
In theory, yes. In reality we'll likely see a raise in some taxes (The same way St Pete did with Sunken Gardens a while ago). The mantra of free-markets will go out the door because no local politician will want to be painted as "against the Gardens".
Funny thing is that in another article posted above, a Georgia businessman has offered to open discussions about buying the park but the current owner won't return the calls and some WH city officials are trying to make rules about what the park should be like if a buyer is found.
Sounds to me like they want their cake and the ability to eat it, too.
We had an egrit that would come into the yard on a regular basis, so we started feeding him bait fish. If you left the front door open, he'd follow you right into the house.
Really? My family visited Florida when I was 8, and I still have more vivid memories of Cypress Gardens than Disneyworld. I had a blast; it rained hard all day, and I didn't care.
After the Seminoles left the Cherokee nation, they settled in Central Florida away from the white man's lodges to the North. One legendary chief settled on the lake which is now known as Lake Wailes. Here he had all the advantages of a high campsite on a lake which offered fresh water and good fishing. It was also close to Iron Mountain which, as the highest point in Florida, was sacred to the Indians' Sun God.
The chief, Cufcowellax, and his people were happy for several years, but then one day a huge bull alligator moved into the lake and began to harass the tribe. Soon it began nightly raids on the village, and the tribe lived in terror of this evil spirit that inhabited their lake.
The legend says that Cufcowellax was a chief of great physical prowess and courage. He had great stature among his people both as a warrior and as a ruler. When he saw his people in constant fear, the chief, fearing for their safety, set out to conquer the evil spirit. His tribal shaman and elders placed him under the protection of the Great Spirit and he began his search.
Though many suns came and went, he could not catch the 'gator. Finally one morning he came upon the 'gator on the northwest shore as it dragged another night's victim into the lake.
The legend says the chief battled the 'gator on land and water for a moon, and then suddenly the great thrashing stopped, and the water of the lake turned red.
The tribe watched the surface of the lake in fearful anticipation. With great joy they saw their chief rise from the water. In the midst of their celebration they saw something else. The great battle had made a smaller lake near the big one. When the chief died, he was buried on the shore of the little lake, Ticowa, and the place became sacred to the Indians.
Discovery of Spook Hill
The Indians lost their camping grounds to the encroaching white settlers. Circuit riders carrying mail between the coasts used the old trail around Lake Ticowa until they discovered that their horses were laboring downhill. It was they who first called the place Spook Hill.
Some forty years later as the area developed, the citrus industry grew. Soon the hills around Lake Ticowa were covered with citrus groves. Workers driving their wagons around the lake were startled to find their mule teams struggling downhill with a load.
Years later the road was paved and residents found their cars would roll uphill by themselves. Others came to test this phenomenon, and it soon became a major attraction for visitors.
As I said before, $34.95 to watch water skiers may have had something to do with it.
Long story short - the surroundings outside of the Bok Tower Sanctuary and Gardens - constitute the town of "Mountain Lake" which was one of the very first gated communities in the entire US. There's a lot of "old money" there - the people who bought property there in the early 1900's were the tycoons and the "robber barons" like the Rockefellers, etc. My dad still maintains his locksmithing business and regularly services locks on the estate homes, so he gets paid with checks written on all the NY & Chicago high-powered banks ;-).