This week, on Florida Time, we revisit Florida’s first theme park, Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, from a 1994 Palm Beach Post article and the book “Historical Traveler’s Guide to Florida.”
When Walt Disney's empire only was a little mouse, Dick Pope was birthing Florida's modern tourism industry on 16 acres of swamp.
Pope would be called an “aquatic Barnum.'' But he was called worse by naysayers when he opened Cypress Gardens, Florida's first theme park, on Jan. 2, 1936. At 25 cents a head, his first day's take was $38 -- meaning he saw at most 152 people.
Spreading from a giant lake where ski shows went on, rain or shine, the park boasted more than 8,000 varieties of plants and flowers from 75 countries, a 5,500-square-foot conservatory housing about 1,000 butterflies, a 153-foot high “island in the sky” revolving platform, museums, shops and restaurants, and children's rides and games.
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Pope had moved his family from his native Iowa in 1908, drawn by Florida's land booms. When the bust wiped him out, he drove to Wisconsin to work for the fledgling Johnson outboard motor company. Later, after reading an article about a man in South Carolina who earned $36,000 in three months simply by charging people to view his estate, Pope had an idea.
He built Cypress Gardens not just as a moneymaker itself, but also as a come-on.
“When people came out of the gardens punch-drunk with beauty,'' Pope would say years later in a newspaper interview, “they might say something like ‘This is a beautiful spot. I sure would like to buy a little piece of land here.’ To which I would say, ‘It just so happens…”'
Pope and a partner paid $500 down and took a 3-year note from the city of Winter Haven and a local canal commission for $1,800 in cash and in “man days,' or one day’s work by one man equals one,' from the Florida Emergency Relief Association, a local branch of the Works Progress Administration.
Later, the other groups pulled out, saying the property would never be more than swamp; they dubbed Pope “Swami of the Swamp” and “Maestro of the Muck.”
Pope disagreed. He hired about 30 men for $1 a day, and for five months, the workers toiled with buckets and shovels. Pope got building materials from a cypress growers' association in exchange for naming his park after their product. He laid rye grass and $300 worth of azaleas and camellias.
Pope soon saw the attraction could be more than a salesman's bait. Over the years, he sent magazines and newsreel outfits thousands of still photographs and small reels of film. Freezing northerners devoured the lush images of orange blossoms, swimsuit-clad maidens, even a swimming pool in the shape of Florida. Two movies were shot there. Life called it a “photographer's paradise.''
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During World War II, soldiers were drawn to the attraction's ski shows. Pope was credited with the first ramp jump and the first kite flying on skis.
After Walt Disney opened his first park in California, Pope invited him to Florida. Disney stood at the entrance with a counter and clicked off customers as they came in. He was impressed. Disney World opened in 1971. Even Pope saw it would grow to dwarf Cypress Gardens, but also believed it would bring tourists to him as well. He bought a full-page newspaper ad welcoming Disney and was awarded the park's first lifetime pass.
Meanwhile, Pope diversified into water skiing and water sports products. He died at 87 in 1988.
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Cypress Gardens underwent a $5.5 million renovation and expansion in 1980. The Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing and entertainment empire bought it in 1985 and sold it four years later to Anheuser-Busch. Into the mid-1990s, it would attract more than 800,000 visitors a year. But the place just couldn’t keep up with the competition, and Cypress Gardens closed in 2009. Now at its site: Legoland.
Next week: A season we’d rather skip
Last week: What do you know about Castillo de San Marcos, Florida’s oldest man-made European structure?
From a reader: I was a kid during W.W. 11 living in Miami. At the 14th Street Beach on Miami Beach, I saw a skinny, very skinny couple showering off the sand. I had never seen such corpse-like bodies. My question is: Could they have been survivors of a German concentration camp? If so, what was Florida's role in giving them refuge? - Marian, Raleigh, NC
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.