Florida is known around the world as the home of major theme parks such as Disney World, Universal Orlando, Sea World, and Busch Gardens. There are smaller theme parks here as well, including Marineland, Weeki Wachee, Gatorland and Dinosaur World.
The state tourism agency Visit Florida estimates that 94.7 million tourists came to Florida in 2013, most of them visiting at least one theme park.
Cypress Gardens was Florida’s first theme park. Created by entrepreneur and professional promoter Dick Pope in Winter Haven, Cypress Gardens opened on January 2, 1936, and closed on September 23, 2009.
Dick Pope was a flamboyant and successful promoter. His marketing efforts led to Cypress Gardens appearing on the covers of hundreds of magazines and in newspaper photographs across the country. The theme park became a popular setting for commercials, television shows, and films.
Lu Vickers is author of the book Cypress Gardens, America’s Tropical Wonderland: How Dick Pope Invented Florida.
“He would stage events at the gardens,” Vickers says, “but sometimes he would gather his employees and say ‘I’ve called the press and told them something big is happening today. Do you have any ideas?’ He didn’t mind creating a scene to get attention.”
A colorful botanical garden was the centerpiece of Cypress Gardens, but the park also featured water ski shows and boat rides. Beginning in 1940, the park became known for having Southern Belles walking the property in hoop skirts and posing for photographs.
The tradition of Southern Belles at Cypress Gardens started as an attempt to distract visitors from seeing damage to the park’s foliage.
“There was a really hard freeze,” Vickers says. “Julie Pope (Dick Pope’s wife) was the one who came up with the idea to dress a young lady in a Southern Belle outfit and stand her outside so that people would not notice that the flame vine had pretty much been burnt by the frost.”
From that day forward, Southern Belles could be found at Cypress Gardens. Later they were joined by Spanish conquistadors and Native American girls.
Celebrities including Elvis Presley, Johnny Carson, King Hussein of Jordon and many others came to Cypress Gardens. Aquatic film star Esther Williams, who made a popular series of swimming based musicals in the 1940s and ‘50s, was a frequent guest at the park. Williams promoted the venue with television specials. Her 1953 film “Easy to Love” was filmed at Cypress Gardens.
Before the Disney corporation built its first Florida theme park in 1971, Cypress Gardens was the most popular tourist destination in the state.
“It tied with the Grand Canyon for the number 1 attraction in the country in 1963,” Vickers says. “That’s how big it was.”
Disney World and its affiliated theme parks owe some of their overwhelming success to Florida’s first theme park.
While visiting Cypress Gardens prior to the construction of California’s Disneyland in 1955, Roy Disney called his brother and business partner Walt Disney from Dick Pope’s office. Roy Disney couldn’t wait to tell his brother how impressed he was with Pope’s theme park concept. People were happily paying good money to walk around a garden, stop for photos with costumed characters, ride in a boat, and watch an entertaining show or two!
Dick Pope welcomed Disney World to Florida. “He had no problem promoting other attractions,” Vickers says. “He felt that the more people who came to Florida, the more likely they were to come to his place, too.”
Unfortunately for Pope and Cypress Gardens, it didn’t work out that way.
With the opening of Disney World and other large theme parks, revenues at Cypress Gardens began to decline. Beginning in the early 1980s, a series of new owners took control of the park, including the corporations that owned Sea World and Busch Gardens.
In 2009, Cypress Gardens closed. Two years later, LEGOLAND Florida opened on the site. LEGOLAND features rides, shows, and a water park primarily aimed at children 12 and under. Miniature cities are constructed using the popular Lego building blocks.
The original botanical gardens of Cypress Gardens are intact at the heart of the park. Even the iconic Southern Belles remain, although they are now made of Legos.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.