2003 - A Brief History of Cypress Gardens
They say Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope, Sr. was born in the midst of an Iowa cyclone.
And, the energy of that cyclone -- and the bluster --
was absorbed by Pope and drove him energetically through all his life.
Born at the dawn of the new century, Pope came to Florida with his father at age 11
and honed his sales skills helping his dad sell real estate, closing his first deal at the age of 12.
He met and married his life partner, Julie Downing, in 1926.
After the Florida real estate market went bust in 1927,
Pope needed a way to support his new wife.
Outboard motors were just coming into use
and Dick had heard that one manufacturer was planning a publicity campaign.
He and his bride hopped into a car and headed to Johnson Outboards headquarters.
At every city en route, Dick stopped and sent a telegram to the president:
"Hold all publicity plans until I get there. Your problem is solved."
The company, bowled over by his high-pressure approach, gave him a $1,000 a month job.
He staged death-defying boat races all over the state of Florida
to publicize the introduction of the famous Johnson SeaHorse outboard motor.
He became so successful that he started his own public relations agency.
His client list grew and he had elegant offices
in the prestigious Tribune building in Chicago and the Graybar building in New York.
But Pope had been touting the Sunshine State for so long
he had convinced himself that Florida was the only place to live.
So, in the midst of the worst depression this country has ever endured,
he and Julie decided to head back to the land of oranges.
According to Pope, “This all came about, you know,
because Julie showed me an article in Good Housekeeping,
while we were living in New York,
about a banker in Charleston who had opened his private estate to the public,
and charged admission and had taken in $36,000 cash in one year -- a big sum in those days.
It stayed in our minds, and one day after we decided to come back to Florida, we talked it over and said,
“someday we'd build a Garden, so I could be president -- and attract visitors to Winter Haven!”
In the latter part of 1932 -- while Florida was in the grip of the depression that followed the boom --
he sold the WFERA -- a branch of the WPA --
on the idea that instead of having men raking leaves at a dollar a day,
they could beautify and rebuild the canals and chain of lakes.
They started work on the canals, and then planned on adding a hanging garden
on Lake Eloise, which later became Cypress Gardens.
At the time, Pope was chairman of the canal commission for the Lake Region,
so the property was put in their name.
But after spending about $3500 of government money and $1500 of the canal commission's money,
opposition to the project locally became so severe that it was canceled by the WFERA
and the canal commission was repaid its $1500.
They deeded the property over to the Florida Cypress Gardens Association, Inc.
Working side by side with the laborers in the muck, Pope began constructing his dream garden.
Many in the press laughed at the idea of building a beautiful tropical showcase
in the middle of a 16-acre marsh,
calling him “Maharaja of Muck” and “Swami of the Swamp,” but he persevered.
Dick didn't know one flower from another, but Julie Pope, born and raised in Brewton, AL,
knew plants, loved them and had a "green thumb."
Always a picture enthusiast, Pope set up an 8 by 10 view camera while laying out the Garden’s paths
to be sure he could get good picture compositions with his plantings.
If a big tree or lagoon appeared as an obstacle, he went around it with his walkways
(and besides, it cost money to build bridges and fill stump-holes).
Finally, on January 2, 1936, the
gates opened on what would become a showplace
for 8,000 varieties of plants from more than 90 different countries.
In 1938, the first electric boats began gliding through the tropical canals.
Pope’s newsreels, photographs, and tireless showmanship soon resulted in countless images
of beautiful women, palm trees, exotic flowers
and always-sunny Florida skies published around the world.
He was proclaimed “Mr. Florida,” first citizen of the state and, in time, the “Father of Florida Tourism.”
Through the years, some of Cypress Gardens’ icons came about out of necessity.
For instance, in 1940, the flame vine on the entrance wall,
the first plant visitors saw when they arrived, died during a freeze.
All the plants inside the Gardens were protected by smudge pots and were fine.
Twenty people drove up the first day and drove away again without going in.
Mrs. Pope called one of the girls. "Put on an old-fashioned dress,” she said,
"that will be warm without looking warm and we'll put a shawl on your shoulders.
Then you go stand by that dead vine and flirt with everybody
that comes in so hard that they don't see the vine."
People quit leaving without entering the gardens.
In fact, they didn’t even notice the dead vine.
The gracious Southern Belles became a tradition that is an ongoing part of the beauty of the Gardens.
The world famous water ski show had the same sort of beginning.
In 1943, while Pope was serving in World War II, one of the photos in a local newspaper
featured water skiers being pulled by a boat at Cypress Gardens.
Several soldiers in the area came to see the “water show,” even though none existed.
But Julie, the consummate businesswoman, rounded up her children and their friends
to stage the park’s first water ski show.
The next weekend, 800 soldiers showed up, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cypress Gardens was soon dubbed the “water ski capital of the world,” a distinction it still enjoys today.
Celebrities and Hollywood movie producers discovered Cypress Gardens in the late ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s,
including Elvis Presley, Esther Williams and Johnny Carson.
Full-length features including “On an Island With You,” “Easy to Love,”
parts of “Moon Over Miami,” “This is Cinerama,”
and hundreds of short features flooded movie theaters all over the country,
building the tremendous recognition of the Gardens.
Cypress Gardens expanded during the ‘70s and ‘80s
to compete with new Central Florida theme parks springing up.
In the early ‘80s, Pope retired and passed the reins to his son, Dick Jr.
In June 1985, after almost a half-century of Pope family ownership and involvement,
Cypress Gardens was sold to publishing conglomerate Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
HBJ sunk several million dollars into a new package of attractions, shows and food concessions
before selling Cypress Gardens and four Sea World parks to
Busch Entertainment Corporation (BEC) in 1989.
During BEC’s tenure, the park again underwent capital expansions and improvements,
including the introduction of more new attractions, shows, shops and festivals.
In 1995, BEC sold Cypress Gardens to the park’s current management team.
Back in the hands of local owners,
Cypress Gardens’ attendance has since flourished with such new attractions
as a spring lights festival, ice skating show, covered floral show and zoo.
And, in 1999, the park added an authentic paddle wheel boat for sightseeing tours
and romantic brunch and dinner cruises.
“Not only do we have Dick Pope’s legacy to live up to,
but we purchased a Florida tourism icon that is as well branded as Proctor and Gamble,”
said Bill Reynolds, president and CEO.
“As stewards for this incredible historic attraction,
we are strategically planning the future of the park to ensure its position
as one of Florida’s true tourism treasures.
We will continue to emphasize the park’s traditional heritage as a world-famous botanical garden and
water ski capital as well as introduce new entertainment elements designed to appeal to all ages.”
Adult admission is $34.95, youth (10-17) $22.95, and child (3-9) 12.95.
Cypress Gardens is a 200-acre “must-see” tropical theme park
noted for its beautiful plants and flowers and its world-famous water ski shows.
It is located off U.S. Hwy. 27 just 22 miles south of I-4 between Orlando and Tampa
on the shores of Lake Eloise and Lake Summit near Winter Haven.
The park is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with extended hours during special seasons.
For more information on Cypress Gardens, call (800) 282-2123 or (863) 324-2111, ext. 1214.