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Cypress Gardens, Florida reopens

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.
Maxine Walton adds plants to this floral creation at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla. After a 19-month lapse and a $45 million makeover, Cypress Gardens, the venerable theme park famed for its water-skiing shows and Southern belles, is back in business. The park’s grand opening is Dec. 9.Peter Cosgrove / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Georgia theme park operator Kent Buescher thought the park had potential if it could meld its Old Florida charm with modern attractions. He purchased Cypress Gardens in February for $7 million under a complicated 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 the 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 as she walked the property, glistening with fresh paint, verdant with new sod and bright landscaping, its newly poured parking lots and sidewalks tidy.

If Cypress Gardens stays true to its history, a theme park expert thinks it may thrive.

"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. "To try to make into what the industry is today, they don't have enough money to make it in that market."

More than 30,000 visitors turned out during a three-day trial opening last month - about two weeks worth of visitors in the year before it closed. Many of the preview's visitors were locals, happy that the 150-acre landmark had not been torn down as some had feared when it closed 20 months ago.

Robert Campbell said he wanted to see the ski show, but he couldn't get his sons, Tyler 12, and Scott, 9, off the roller coasters. Their favorite: The Triple Hurricane, a small version of New York's famed Coney Island wooden coaster.

"They rode everything 10 or 15 times," Campbell said. He said the botanical gardens were as lush as they had been decades ago when he visited as a child with his own parents. "It was a good time. It was nice and clean. It was a wonderful experience."

Among the more glamorous rides is The Inverter, a five-story coaster that suspends riders upside down, then flips them 360 degrees before thundering back to the gate. Storm Surge sends rafters six stories down through wildly rampaging whitewater.

One of the most delightful rides for youngsters is a fancy, new double-decker carousel, populated with colorfully hand-painted, wooden animals. There is also a new version of ever-popular bumper cars. The hope is to lure a younger crowd. Before it closed, 90 percent of Cypress Gardens' visitors were senior citizens.

Still, the park exudes a leisurely ease that bigger parks might envy - the 30-acre botanical garden, thinned by the three hurricanes that hit the area this year, is in full bloom.

Jubilee Junction combines food outlets and shopping, with everything from a year-round Christmas market to an artisan who demonstrates how to make candles by hand.

A revamped concert venue will be able to accommodate crowds up to 15,000 when its reserved seating sections are completed after New Year's Day, and workers are still finishing an animal area featuring alligators, birds, and reptiles indigenous to the state. A new water park called Splash Island is scheduled to open in early May.

Daily admission will be $34.95 plus tax for people 10 to 54. It's $29.95 plus tax for ages 3 to 9 and 55 and up. Children 2 and under are free. Annual passes are $64.95.

Designers tried to arrange the park so it would be family friendly. Kiddie rides are paired with more challenging ones that would attract older kids or adults so families don't have to split up.

"The focus of the park is to make it a family destination, something all ages can enjoy and experience together," Gernert said.

One family already planning to return includes Sara Hallett, a 46-year-old Winter Haven mom. During the park's soft opening, her 3-year-old son loved the Three Hurricanes roller coaster and then fixated on Dizzy Dragons, a kiddie ride that spins in circles.

"We just loved the fact the park was open," she said. "We live very close, we have annual passes, so I'm sure we'll be frequent visitors."