This venerable 66-year-old flower park in Winter Haven, Florida, has new sights, shows, and activities for the whole family.
By Roger Lee Miller, F238233
Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven, Florida, is a popular place for motorhome rallies these days, and for good reason. Its serene beauty and relaxed atmosphere beckons those who just want to relax and enjoy life. There’s something for everyone, from retired RVers to young families vacationing in their first motorhome.
Depending on your age and/or experience, you may have gotten your first views of Cypress Gardens thanks to Esther Williams and her spectacular water ballets. In the 1953 film Easy To Love, this champion swimmer splashed onto the silver screen in a kaleidoscope of gorgeous “mermaids” choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Cypress Gardens was the motion picture’s filming location.
Esther Williams learned to water ski for that picture, and Cypress Gardens helped to make the sport famous. The park also was a featured location in This Is Cinerama in 1952. Towed by powerful speedboats, daring water skiers roared across the wide screen. Movie audiences were awed as Lowell Thomas described the beauty of the Florida botanical gardens and exciting water ski acts, and by an innovation called stereophonic sound.
Movies or not, we may have Cypress Gardens to thank for the way the state of Florida’s tourism industry blossomed. Built by Richard and Julie Pope in 1936, Cypress Gardens could be called the granddaddy of theme parks.
The idea began in 1932, when the United States, and the world for that matter, was deep into the Great Depression. The stock market had crashed, factories closed, and men and women stood in bread lines to feed their families. Few jobs were available. The U.S. government formed the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to create new jobs building the infrastructure of the country. When Dick Pope, an advertising and public relations genius, saw men raking leaves for $1 a day, the idea struck him to use this manpower to create a garden of flowers and trees in the middle of a 16-acre Florida marsh.
Pope was called the “Maharaja of Muck” and “Swami of the Swamp.” He worked side by side with the laborers. Julie, his wife, knew plants, loved them, and had a “green thumb.” Winter Haven was their adopted home, and they wanted to create botanical gardens that would attract visitors. The gardens opened on January 2, 1936 with 8,000 varieties of flowers from 90 different countries.
Dick Pope was a tireless promoter of this area, and became known as the “Father of Florida Tourism.” He hired his own film crews and distributed pictures of beautiful women, palm trees, and always-sunny Florida skies. Mr. Pope’s relentless energies attracted Hollywood to Winter Haven, and he even managed to take over the director’s chair for some of the filming that took place at this park.
In 1943 a photo of water skiers at Cypress Gardens appeared in a local newspaper. So, several soldiers on leave from the war came to see the “water show,” although none existed. Dick Pope was off serving his country at the time, but Julie seized the opportunity. She rounded up her children and their friends and staged the park’s first water ski extravaganza. The shows became such a huge success that Cypress Gardens was dubbed the “water ski capital of the world.”
Dick and Julie’s son, Dick Jr., practically grew up on water skis, and was said to be the world’s first barefoot water skier. The Cypress Gardens water ski team was featured on television programs such as the “Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Today Show,” the “Colgate Comedy Hour,” and the “Tonight Show.”
In 1985 the Pope family sold Cypress Gardens to a publishing company, and the place changed hands again in 1989, when Busch Entertainment Corporation became its owner. Busch sold Cypress Gardens to the park’s own management team in 1995, and the place has since blossomed with added attractions such as live animal shows and displays, and a first-class ice-skating show called “Moscow on Ice presents Skates the States.” It opens with a “flying” skater and blades its way across America, with tributes to New Orleans, Detroit, Hollywood, New York City, and Miami.
Even with all this, many things remain the same at Cypress Gardens. As in times past, silent electric boats take riders past thousand-year-old cypress trees on Lake Eloise and into fields of nature’s spectacular colors. These boats glide past flower gardens with 8,000 varieties, and tropical trees gathered from throughout the world. Visitors pass under a waterfall into a mirror-like lagoon graced by genteel Southern belles sitting primly under their parasols. From these boats, well-marked trails point the way to the formal gardens.
Cypress Gardens is still famous for its breathtaking waterfalls. Ever-changing displays of giant floral animals form a tableau before glorious cascades. There’s something for everyone, so come on in.
Walkways and identification signs guide visitors through a profusion of plants and trees, including bamboo, palm, cycad, banana, croton, weeping fig, and the multiple trunks of the banyan. These larger species form a frame for fields of bougainvillea, roses, camellias, and azaleas. An Oriental Garden, a Biblical Garden, and a French Garden are carefully planned and groomed by dedicated horticulturists. A Wedding Gazebo is a romantic spot for couples to become husband and wife.
Beyond the flowers, visitors will find plenty more live entertainment, rides, and activities:
Climb aboard the Island in the Sky, a revolving platform that rises 153 feet above the park and presents a bird’s-eye view.
See the water ski show, a tradition since 1943. Lake Eloise provides the backdrop for the “aqua maid” ballet lines and human pyramids. Watching the “world’s greatest ski team” fly off the ramps and seeing the hang-glider act will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you would like to join in the fun, water ski lessons are available.
Enjoy a live animal show with alligators, crocodiles, exotic snakes, birds, coatimundis, and more in the Nature’s Arena.
Stroll through the Birdwalk Aviary, where dozens of Australian lorikeets are so tame they alight on your shoulders.
See the collection of cute small-animal species from around the world at the Nature’s Way zoo.
Visit the Wings of Wonder butterfly conservatory, where the beautiful creatures fly freely inside a 5,500-foot glass structure. More than 1,000 colorful “works of winged art” represent more than 50 species from around the world.
See the FloraDome, a covered horticultural exhibit built to honor Cypress Gardens’ 65th anniversary. It’s filled with changing seasonal displays.
Join the children (or simply the young at heart) in your group to see Cypress Junction, a large model train display with 1,100 feet of track.
Splash around in the Wacky Water Park (open from May 1 to September 30). This new attraction includes a kiddy area with slides and splash areas, and Flumerama, with five exciting flume slides. Braver riders will try the “Barracuda Blaster,” a slide that starts 20 feet up and travels 81 exciting feet.
See Gator Gulch, home to scary-looking alligators and very rare North American crocodiles.
Ride on the Southern Breeze paddle wheel boat (for an extra fee). Dinner cruises also are offered. For menu information, prices, and reservations, phone (863) 324-2111, ext. 445.
And be sure to walk back into the past at Southern Crossroads, a re-created antebellum Southern town that is home to shows, restaurants, and attractions. Kids of all ages have fun riding the merry-go-round in the Carousel Cove. For a quick snack, stop at the Cypress Barbecue for a tasty barbeque beef sandwich. Top it off with a creamery-fresh, hand-dipped ice cream cone.
Live entertainment also is presented in the Southern Crossroads town, with Elvis impersonators, country singers, and big-band musicians throughout the day and evening. Authentic German oompah bands fill the park with smiles and toe-tapping music during the garden’s Oktoberfest.
And if you would like to reminisce about the golden days of radio, you can visit a radio museum there, complete with old-time programs and radio sets.
Speaking of the past, wherever you turn while in Cypress Gardens, you’ll likely see the Southern belles — lovely ladies bedecked in the old-fashioned hoop-skirt dresses that were popular around the time of the Civil War. Many young girls dream of dressing up like these ladies, and the Junior Belle experience makes this possible. For a fee, girls get to visit with a makeup artist, get their hair done up with rosettes and ribbons, and don the full-length hoop skirts. Cameras come out and flashes go off as the belles stroll through the park. When they are finished with their walk, a professional photographer takes their portraits. The Junior Belle program has recently expanded to include belles of all ages, so mothers and grandmothers can now join the little ladies’ moment in the sun.
Special events take place at Cypress Gardens throughout the year. From February 1 to April 30, the Spring Lights event turns the terrain into a glowing fantasyland. Park hours are extended into the evening, and fireworks are offered each Saturday night.
The Spring Flower Festival, held from mid-March to mid-May, presents a fascinating array of topiary figures culled from fantasy and real life, hand-planted with thousands of colorful wax begonias and other flowers. These works of steel and flowers are woven into floral displays using thousands of blossoms.
More than 3 million brilliant blooms usher in the Mum Festival in time for the Thanksgiving holiday each year. A 6-acre exhibition showcases hanging baskets and barber poles, whose colors form a striped effect.
A change in the mood appears with the Poinsettia Festival, which begins in late November and continues to early January. Thousands of beautiful red, white, pink, marble, and speckled poinsettias present a winter wonderland in the tropics. Brilliant beds outline shimmering fountains, waterfalls, ponds, and streams.
At the same time as the Poinsettia Festival, the Garden of Lights Holiday Festival is underway. It includes a light-sculpted re-creation of the city of Bethlehem; various scenes from favorite fairy tales; and the world’s tallest Christmas tree. The latter is set in a field of hibiscus against snow-capped poinsettia mountains, and draped with 25,000 lights.
Live entertainment at Cypress Gardens in January 2002 will include Riders In The Sky January 12 and 13; Boots Randolph January 19 and 20; and the Glenn Miller Orchestra on January 26 and 27. All entertainment is included with admission, but if you like, you can reserve a seat for $5 extra. On different weekends in February and March, entertainment will include Larry Gatlin; Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians; the Wilkinsons; Pat Boone; stars from the Grand Ole Opry; Ray Price; stars of the Lawrence Welk Show; and Roy Clark. Headlining acts scheduled for later in 2002 include Glen Campbell, The Lettermen, and an Elvis tribute. Contact the park for more information about dates.
Winter Haven is 50 miles east of Tampa and 50 miles south of Orlando. Unlike its noisy big-city neighbors, Cypress Gardens is a restful spot cut out of Florida’s natural beauty, and decorated by an artist’s touch with a rainbow of beautiful blossoms. Nearly all attractions are included in the park entry fee, and you won’t feel as if every nook and cranny of the park is designed to take dollars out of your wallet.
If You Go
Cypress Gardens is open daily (except major holidays) from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Later closing times are often in effect, depending on the season or on special events.
Daily admission prices are $34.95 plus tax for adults, with a 10 percent discount for active military personnel, AAA members, and AARP members; $19.95 plus tax for children ages 6 to 17; free to children age 5 and under.
Many RVing snowbirds purchase an annual pass, so they can save money and visit Cypress Gardens as often as they like while they’re in Florida. For seniors (age 55 and over), a new annual pass costs $67.45 plus tax; to renew the pass, the price is $60.45 plus tax. Other pass rates apply for adults and children.
To reach the park, take Interstate 4 to U.S. 27 south to State Route 540 west. Cypress Gardens is located on State Route 540.
For more information, contact:
P.O. Box 1
Cypress Gardens, FL 33884