Memory lane: Cypress Gardens reopens after $45 million renovation

Monday, December 6th 2004, 8:37 am
By: News On 6

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) _ One of Florida's first theme parks, Cypress Gardens was known for its lush native plants, its water-ski show and young women dressed as Southern belles.

The concept was a hit in the 1950s but officially died in 2003. One of the original Florida tourist draws couldn't compete with the 21st century whiz-bang rides at Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens.

But Georgia theme park operator Kent Buescher thought the park had potential if it could meld nostalgia with modern attractions. Earlier this year, he bought Cypress Gardens for $7 million under a deal that involved state and local government and a nonprofit conservation group.

After a $45 million investment in four roller coasters, 34 other rides and new restaurants, Cypress Gardens is set to reopen Thursday, hoping to find a profitable niche in central Florida's crowded tourism market. The hoop-skirted belles are back, along with the gardens and water skiers. There is even a new butterfly garden featuring 20 species.

``We wanted the park to have a vintage feel. That's why we've left a lot of these elements in place,'' spokeswoman Alyson Gernert said.

If Cypress Gardens stays true to its history, a theme park expert thinks it may thrive. The park, which opened in 1936, served as the backdrop for Esther Williams movies during its heyday.

``To bring it back to what it once was would be unique,'' said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting firm.

More than 30,000 visitors showed up during a three-day preview last month _ about two weeks worth of visitors in the year before it closed. Many were locals, happy that the 150-acre landmark had not been torn down.

Robert Campbell said he wanted to see the ski show, but he couldn't get his sons off the roller coasters. Their favorite: The Triple Hurricane, a small version of New York's famed Coney Island wooden coaster.

He said the botanical gardens were as lush as they had been decades ago when he visited as a child with his parents.

``It was a wonderful experience.''