A Brief History of Cypress Gardens

Vintage Cypress Gardens

Creative Commons

After a 73-year history in which it grew to become Florida’s most popular tourist destination, Cypress Gardens closed in September 2009. What happened? And why was it so popular? Let’s examine the famous park. You may be surprised to learn that, in some ways, Cypress Gardens still lives on.

The Early Years

Husband and wife entrepreneurs Richard “Dick” and Julie Pope opened Cypress Gardens on the banks of Lake Eloise in Winter Haven, Florida in 1936. It had been the site of a yacht club. The Popes named the park for the lovely cypress trees that rimmed the shores of the lake.

Carefully manicured botanical gardens was the first attraction. The gardens remained the centerpiece even as the park expanded to over 200 acres. Hand-dredged canals intersected the gardens. Later, boats filled with visitors would ply the canals (as well as the lake).

In the 1940s, Julie Pope introduced the southern belles, lovely young women dressed in colorful hoop dresses. They become as much a signature fixture of Cypress Gardens as the gardens themselves.

Cypress Gardens at Legoland Florida
© Arthur Levine 

Also in the 1940s, the Popes launched the park’s water ski show. Known for its precision performers, Cypress Gardens became known as the water ski capital of the world. Based on the popularity of its three quaint attractions—the gardens, southern belles, and the water ski show—the park grew to enormous popularity and at one point tied with the Grand Canyon as the country’s number one tourist attraction.

In the 1950s, the park gained even more prominence when it served as the site for the 1953 movie, “Easy to Love.” It starred Esther Williams, a performer known for her elaborate musical numbers choreographed in water. For the movie, the park installed the Esther Williams pool, which was in the shape of the state of Florida. Williams returned to Cypress Gardens to film a television special. Johnny Carson also filmed a TV show at the park.

A virtual who's who of celebrities and other notable people visited Cypress Gardens, thereby reinforcing its popularity. Among the VIPs were Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, and Elvis Presley.

Disney Comes to Town

Ironically, Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters were featured guests at Cypress Gardens for a special event in the 1950s. Also, Walt Disney’s brother, Roy, toured Cypress Gardens and spoke with Dick Pope when Disneyland was being planned.

When Walt Disney announced in 1965 that he would be bringing Walt Disney World to Central Florida, the Popes were initially supportive. They thought the new visitors Disney would attract to the state could only help their park. After Disney World opened in 1971, attendance did increase at Cypress Gardens. Eventually, however, the Mouse began diverting visitors to its mega resort, and turnstile clicks started dropping.

The Popes retired in the early 1980s. Their son, Dick Pope, Jr., continued to operate the park, but sold it to the book publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (which also owned SeaWorld) in 1985. HBJ sold the struggling park to Anheuser-Busch (which owned Busch Gardens) in 1989. A group of local businesspeople operated the park from 1995 to 2003 and closed it that year amid declining tourism after the 9/11 tragedy.

The owners of Wild Adventures, a theme park in Georgia, came to the rescue and reopened the park in 2004. They introduced amusement park rides, including roller coasters, to the mix, and added the tagline, “Adventure Park” to the name. In 2005, the water park, Splash Island, opened as part of Cypress Gardens. Although attendance spiked with the additions, the new owners were not able to make a go of it. They declared bankruptcy in 2006, and the park closed for good in 2009.

Legoland Florida Ski Show
Merlin Entertainments

Cypress Gardens at Legoland Florida

In 2010, UK-based attractions company Merlin Entertainments bought the property and announced that it would build Legoland Florida on the site. The brick-themed park, which is geared to young children and their families, opened in 2011.

Merlin retained some of the rides, including the Triple Hurricane wooden coaster (now known as Coastersaurus), but introduced many Lego-centric attractions to the park.

Fortunately, Merlin also retained some of the park’s classic features as well. Visitors today can still tour the lovely botanical gardens, which the park identifies as “Cypress Gardens.” As guests wander through the gardens, they can encounter the Esther Williams Florida-shaped pool (which has not been used in many years.) They can also see the Love Chapel wedding gazebo perched at the highest point of the gardens. A Lego figure of a southern belle stands sentry near the gazebo.

Cypress Gardens Banyan Tree Merlin
Merlin Entertainments

Visitors will be delighted to find a sprawling banyan tree within the gardens. The Popes planted the sapling, which today provides a massive canopy of shade, in 1939.

And the famous water ski show continues as well. Today, however, the performers are dressed as Lego characters.

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