Update (October 22, 2011): I published this guest column when Cypress Gardens went out of business. The park’s guests on April 13, 2003, thought they were at Cypress Gardens on its final day—ever. They didn’t know that a new owner would reopen Cypress Gardens less than two years years later with an emphasis on rides—or that this owner would fail too. On October 15, 2011, the former Cypress Gardens park became LEGOLAND Florida, with more than 50 rides, shows, and attractions for family fun.
— Werner Weiss

Guest Column

Cypress trees in Lake Eloise
A Cypress Gardens boat passing cypress trees that rise from Lake Eloise, 1983
The Day the Flowers Died
by Keeper, April 25, 2003
On April 13, 2003, the owners of Cypress Gardens opened their historic, money-losing Florida attraction to paying guests for the last time. The late Dick Pope Sr. founded Cypress Gardens in 1936, and it was once the top attraction in Central Florida. According to press reports, approximately 15,000 visitors showed up on the final day to say goodbye. One of them was Keeper (keeper@ioacentral.com) who usually writes for IOACentral, a site devoted to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida. — Werner Weiss

Greetings... you may call me... Keeper... for I am the keeper of theme park tales. Today, I’d like to share my thoughts on Cypress Gardens’ last day.

First off a bit about me... I’ve lived in Central Florida about 20 years with my wife... we are in our 40s and have a 9-year-old daughter. We’re theme park junkies and frequent the parks often. We usually get out to Cypress Gardens at least once a year. I’m a particular fan of the old time Florida attractions. It sometimes feels like you’re stepping back in time and viewing a living history of Florida tourism. Although we spend a lot of time at Universal and Disney we still enjoy the slower pace of these old attractions... of them, Cypress Gardens has always been our favorite. When we heard of the closing we dropped our plans for Sunday as we knew we had to say goodbye to an old friend.

We got there about 9:20 a.m., as the park was scheduled to open at 9:30. There was a line of cars going in, so we waited a couple of minutes before paying our $7 to park. While driving in, we saw a line along the side of the road and my wife and daughter hopped out to get in line while I continued to park. The line was only a couple of hundred people but looked longer as they were holding them outside until the ticket booths opened. I caught up with my wife and daughter at the ticket booths right at 9:30.

We noticed that there were a lot of people going into the gift shop, as there was a sign up saying 50% off everything and 75% off Cypress Gardens merchandise. While I waited for tickets, my wife and daughter went to check out the store. I met them there and we decided that, although we wanted to go in the park, we felt that there would be nothing left if we hit the store on the way out. Lines of people snaked through the store waiting to buy stuff; each line had 70-100 people in it.

When I first saw them, my thoughts were along the lines of “those stinkin’ vultures”—but after I reflected on it, I realized that there is so much history associated with this place that that wasn’t fair. I mean, we were affected by the closing, but imagine people who used to work there, who met there, who married there, who visited there weekly... maybe they were just trying to buy a memory to last them once the place was gone. After we took turns waiting in line while the other shopped, I told them to go into the park and get in line for the boat ride while I waited out the rest of the line and brought our junk to the car.

$89 later(!), I finally entered the park around 10:30ish, found my wife and daughter, and took our last ride through the canals. Phew, this day is going to be full of emotion. When we got out, I waited 40 minutes to buy some sodas and snacks, and we walked through the original gardens. We haven’t been in there on foot for years, as the missus usually wants to save on walking so we usually just do the boat ride. We explored every path and took many photos along with many others. I saw many older guests just sitting on benches soaking up the gardens for the last time. I did observe a surprising number of dead leaves on plants near the path; it looks like maybe gardeners’ budget might have been cut prior to the final days.

We headed out of the main gardens towards the other end of the park. The spring topiaries distracted us for some pictures, and we just got in the last group to be seated for the 2:00 p.m. ice show. We watched the show, which was okay, but nowhere near the caliber of the Busch Gardens ice show. The crowd was no doubt very emotional about the day and gave it a standing ovation, which we did not feel it deserved.

Cypress Gardens human pyramid, 1983
A 1983 performance of the human pyramid carrying the American flag

After that, we headed back for the final ski show ever, which was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. We got there about 2:30 and could not find a seat. We stood in the back of the South stadium and waited. At about 2:45 the announcer came out and started introducing some show producers and operations people who briefly spoke—as he said, “I hope I make it through this.” This guy just celebrated 25 years with the park the day before. He started introducing the ski show cast with a girl who just started last week... that kinda reinforces the fact that no one knew this was coming. I know I keep using the term emotional, but I’m at a loss for words... again a very emotional pre-show, but it continues for about 50 minutes, and towards the end, the crowd of regulars in the south stadium started chanting “show—show—show.” The North stadium was full of former skiers, employees and invited guests.

The 3:00 show finally started at about 3:40 with a short demonstration by “Banana” George Blair who we met up with earlier in the day touring the park. He just went around the lagoon once with no flips or jumps but, gee, he’s in his 80s... I’d probably die if I did it today... let alone 40 years from now. The extra long pre-show took a bit of the edge off the main show, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get a shiver when they completed the human pyramid and flew the flag round the lagoon for the last time. Both stadiums were jam-packed and there was not a speck of grass visible between the two seating areas; it was so crowded with people who enjoyed this final show. We got out of there around 4:30 p.m. and were all beat after standing two hours.

The lines for food and drinks were obscene, and we were running out of time, so we drained a water fountain and decided to skip eating till we got out of the park. We went through the butterfly exhibit, and I stood in line to get a small batch of souvenirs while my wife and daughter headed over to the water park section. It was a short wait and I caught up with them. We found that the water part was closed. I don’t know if it had just closed or never opened that day. The little keeper was getting tired too and she passed up on the kiddie rides and carrousel.

We went through the train exhibit and noticed some of it was already gone, and we went on the sky ride to see the park from above. After that, we walked through the radio exhibit and yesterday exhibit. I remembered the stories of what a flamboyant character Dick Pope was when we saw one of his jackets on display. The material had yellow flowers on it... wow, a feller could go blind...

We then walked through the walk-through flower and waterfall exhibit, and got someone to take our picture with a disposable camera, as the missus depleted the battery in her camera and video recorder (she took lots of pics). We walked through the Santa exhibit and the couple of shops we missed as we started heading out.

I thought I’d lose it in the original gardens or at the ski show, but it was this final walk through the giant Spring topiaries on our way out that it really hit me. This wasn’t Discovery Island or Kongfrontation closing; this was the big one—the one that started it all... I could not be sadder.

banyon tree at Cypress Gardens
Visitors strolling by an exotic banyan tree in 1983

We staggered out about quarter to seven (the park was supposed to close at seven), and we were handed a flyer by people who wanted us to write to Governor Jeb Bush for the state to take over the park. I don’t think I want the state to take any money away from other programs to run a theme park. To me it’s the same thing as when the government bails out the airline industry. If you can’t make a profit then, sadly enough, you go out of business. When the small group of former Busch people bought the place a few years ago they knew that it was going to be a rough go. I give them incredible credit for what they did and that’s why I tried to support them as much as possible.

The only good thing that might come out of this closing is that maybe people won’t take the old Florida attractions for granted and assume that they’ll always be there. Perhaps Cypress Gardens’ closing may help places like Gatorland, Marineland, Silver Springs and the like. The common theme in the news report interviews was, “We’ll miss the park... we haven’t been there in years.” Well, guess what? You have to transfer the love from your heart to your wallet or you lose pieces of history like Cypress Gardens.

This was coming a long time... when Pope started the park, Route 27 was a major route through the area; now most people use I-4. Without rides that attract a younger crowd, you end up with skewing to an older demographic. That forces you to market to this crowd... concert series, ice shows whose most up-to-date theme is a USO dance, etc. I’m not saying that I’d have done anything different, but it seems to me that if you rely on an older crowd, you don’t sell Mickey Mouse ears or Men in Black sunglasses or much else, for that matter. I understand I’m using sweeping generalizations, but again, I think it’s a crowd that would sooner toss an apple and sandwich in a purse than buy lunch or snacks in the park. And also, unfortunately, a client base that gets smaller and smaller each year. It’s a never ending spiral that unfortunately ended April 13, 2003. A day that had Chamber of Commerce perfect weather.

And you just know Dick Pope was there with us smiling... and probably wearing a purple jacket!

  Every Day’s An Adventure
— Keeper

The Original Disneyland Hotel
Posing with Aunt Jemima

© 2003-2011 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks
Updated October 22, 2011.

Photograph of cypress trees in Lake Eloise, 1983, by Werner Weiss.
Photograph of human pyramid with American flag, 1983, by Werner Weiss.
Photograph of visitors strolling by an exotic banyan tree, 1983, by Werner Weiss.