- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — The new owner of Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, is promising to rejuvenate the park of botanical gardens and water-skiing shows with new thrill rides and a water park to appeal to younger visitors.

In late February, Kent Buescher, owner of Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., closed on the 68-year-old property in a complex real estate arrangement involving a nonprofit conservation group and state and local lawmakers. Government officials came up with funding for part of the deal in response to a grass-roots save-the-park movement involving thousands of letters, e-mails and visits to Tallahassee by Cypress Gardens’ trademark Southern belles.

“Today, we took another step forward to rejuvenate and reopen this beloved jewel of Florida history and Florida tourism,” Mr. Buescher said.

The park’s new name, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, captures Mr. Buescher’s efforts to expand the park’s demographic appeal beyond senior citizens to include families with children. Mr. Buescher said he plans to invest $35 million in a new water park and more than 30 rides, including several roller coasters.

The park still will appeal also to senior citizens, though. “We can’t run off one single guest,” Mr. Buescher said.

The park could reopen by Memorial Day.

Anticipating the reopening, Carolina Beleut, 29, already is making the hoop-skirt dresses worn by the Southern belles who populated the park. Miss Beleut, who sometimes works as a Southern belle herself, can make a dress every two days. Most of the park’s 150 dresses were sold after it closed in April amid declining attendance.

“Change is good,” said Miss Beleut, dressed in a blood-red hoop skirt for a news conference announcing the sale. “They need to bring in young people. They need to bring in families.”

Miss Beleut and a former co-worker, Angela Yauchler, described themselves as “devastated” after the park closed.

“We’re such a close family,” said Miss Yauchler, who wore a pink hoop skirt. “It was like a funeral when it closed.”

Both women hope to get back their old jobs. Mr. Buescher said he plans to hire 500 people and will give former workers top priority.

Mr. Buescher said the park, which attracted just 700,000 visitors a year in recent seasons, needs to attract more than 1 million annually to be profitable. He added that he didn’t expect to break even for another 11/2 years.

To help bring back visitors, the park’s adult admission price will be dropped to $26.95, about $8 less than the previous price. A child’s admission will be $22.95, and second-day admission will be free.

Under the $20.5 million real estate arrangement orchestrated by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group, Mr. Buescher paid $7 million for 120 acres of the park. The Polk County Commission paid $2.5 million for the park’s 30-acre historical core, and the state of Florida purchased an $11 million conservation easement.

Cypress Gardens was opened in 1936 by Dick and Julie Pope, who were pioneers of Florida’s tourism industry.

Civic leaders hope the new ownership injects new blood not only into the park, but also into the surrounding community. Polk County, which for decades was dominated by the “old Florida” heritage of the citrus and cattle industries, has struggled to find an identity as nearby Tampa and Orlando have exploded into tourism meccas.

“When Cypress Gardens closed, it shut the door on old Polk County and opened the door to a new Polk County,” said Jeff Potter, a city commissioner for Winter Haven, about 35 miles southwest of Orlando.

With its planned water park, Cypress Gardens can attract year-round visitors from surrounding areas rather than rely on the elderly “snowbird” tourists who were the park’s bread and butter, Mr. Potter said.

“This area,” he said, “has been trying to find an identity for years.”

• • •

Cypress Gardens is scheduled to reopen early this summer. Check www.cypressgardens.com for updates. Located at 2461 S. Lake Summit Drive, Winter Haven, Fla.

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