I don't want to say that the original park failed, yet
annual attendance fell from a peak of 1.7 million in
1976 to 600,000 the year it closed. Why do you think
the park was failing to draw tourists? Was it a
marketing issue, a lack of interest in Old Florida or
To say Cypress Gardens closed because of waning attendance is not completely accurate. That indeed was the story the former owners told in their well planned press releases. But that situation was carefully orchestrated. Cypress Gardens closed because a developer bought into the venture as a partner to turn our beautiful Gardens into one of his housing and commercial projects. Period! To him, it was simply valuable lakefront property that could be developed for financial gain. Money can dazzle folks. After much study and discussion among the partners, professional plans were drawn for this development in July 2002, nine months before the closing. The drawings called for Cypress Gardens to be completely bulldozed and divided into 1/3 acre lots. Kent Buescher, my daughter Shanna, and I all saw those dated professional plans with our own eyes. Advertising was almost completely stopped by the owners so the attendance numbers would indeed be low. In the tourism industry, you have to advertise! Cypress Gardens billboards were turned into advertisements for the developer's most recent housing, golf, and clubhouse development. Needed repairs at Cypress Gardens were covered with duct tape or completely ignored. The owners knew the buildings were going to be bulldozed so why waste the money.
The closing had to be blamed on poor attendance or there would have been an even greater outrage from the public. The developer thought there would be a little initial outcry,
then things would settle down, and he could then proceed with his plans. They had no idea we would be involved and rally the country to save the cradle of Florida Tourism.
The owners actually started bulldozing and burning before the announcement was made that the Gardens would be closing. Money was their bottom line. When they announced their closing which put the 529 people out of work with 3 days notice, they were still selling 3 and 5 year annual passes. Thousands and thousands of passes were sold to senior citizens on limited incomes who made great sacrifices to purchase those tickets. Two weeks beforethe closing, they were even sold to a convention of ladies in the Red Hat Society for a discount price! It did not matter to those owners.
How many times have you been to the park since it re-opened?
We have been to Park twice since it opened. Following the opening in December I acted and sang in 8 performances of the First Baptist "Singing Christmas Trees". Then we had the normal holiday commitments in Orlando. Jim and I looked forward to going to the Park after the New Year to recoup from the holiday activities. But my Mother had a massive stroke on January 3. We were in Georgia for three weeks around the clock before finally moving her by ambulance to Orlando. I am her primary caretaker and for now our lives pretty much rotate around daily care of Mother. She is paralyzed on her right side and she lost her ability to speak or swallow. Oh how we look forward to the day when Mother can swallow again so we can take her to the Gardens in a wheel chair without her food tube. That is a precious dream in my heart... I wish we lived closer so we could enjoy all those glorious concerts!
Of course we soon will be taking the Miss America representatives over to discuss my other dream which hopefully will take place in August!
Cypress Gardens Adventure Park has drawn 300,000
guests in less than three months of operation. That
has it on pace to roughly double its attendance from
its final year. Why do you think the park is working
in its present form?
There are several reasons. Initially we generated international attention in our efforts to save the Park. The owner of Chalet Suzanne said she had more business in the first four months after the closing than she had had in years. Many people waited for 11 long months to get their annual passes. But most importantly for the future of the Park, Kent is advertising in a fabulous aggressive way... the way advertising should and MUST be done in the tourism industry. After living in the tourism capital of the world for 34 years and growing up around the Coca Cola industry in Georgia, I have learned you MUST advertise to attract tourists. We locals love the Park. But there are not enough of us to pay a $45 million mortgage! Tourists have to be attracted to the Park. At least 25% of your budget should be for advertising. Cypress Gardens has a chance to make it as Kent is doing a great job with this! He has also added the larger more varied concert series which will attract many people.
Which changes do you like at Cypress Gardens Adventure Park?
I like the new entrance bringing the guests into the village setting rather than the old buildings from the late fifties and sixties. It makes a much better first impression. To make it even better, I do think interior transportation like expanded golf carts or something themed should be added as it is a long walk to the Botanical Gardens, especially for seniors.
The ticketing set up moves guests along and gets them into the park more efficiently.
I am glad to see things that are fun for the younger generation. Kent did a good job of incorporating the rides among the trees in the old parking area and he added a great deal of greenery and wide walk ways.
I like the new ski show talking about the history of skiing at the park... it would be even better if they would also hire one more female skier and add the historical famous pyramid.
I love the living fountain!!! She is beautiful, elegant, and different!
We also like the flower costumed people who walk around the Park. They are fun and make great memory photos.
And, you saw this one coming -- which changes have you not liked?
I would like to see some fast growing greenery or trees planted immediately that would cover all rides that are visible in the historic areas... especially behind the waterfall, the gazebo, and the historic Cypress Gardens sign!!! Those are photo ops that have been there for 68 years and should remain forever.
Everyone misses the Electric boat rides through the canals. On a really hot day, how peaceful it was to glide through those hand dug curved canals with philodendron leaves gently brushing against your face and a luscious surprise around every corner. We know the seniors loved it, but I can tell you it is one of the favorite memories of our children as well.
I do not like the plain rectangular box shaped bathroom facility at the entry. In the ladies room there are cheap white sinks lined up along the walls with exposed plumbing and cheap mirrors on the wall. We certainly need restrooms at the park. But they can also be themed and attractive. If $45 million was spent for restoration and to add rides, we feel a few more dollars could have made this needed facility a bit more classy to fit into the ambiance of what Dick and Julie Pope started. That is the first and last impression for the guests and it certainly could be better.
I would like to see a better selection of food. On our second trip, we had a choice between fried chicken fingers and rather greasy fried fish. And both were on the high end cost wise when you consider a family with several children. I would like to see some healthy options in the food areas as we continue to learn more about nutrition. The fast food restaurants are currently taking a national beating for being one of the main causes of obesity in our country. Kent could be on the cutting edge by offering both the regular fast foods as well as tasty healthy options. We look forward to the opening of the country restaurant and a fine dining area at the Snively Mansion.
I was disappointed that the zoo area has not been restored....
I would like to see more Belles... many more Belles! The tourists love having their photos made with them. They should always be in the foreground of the famous gazebo. And please give the Belles capes for the cold weather and more accessories. Mr. and Mrs. Pope understood that the details often make something great over something mediocre. I have gotten letters from Belles saying they don't have the accessories that were offered before. They want a dressing room where men are not allowed to enter and a washer and drier.
I am VERY disappointed they do not have the Jr. Belle programs so the little girls can dress up and pretend for the day! That program created memories for a lifetime and how precious it was for us all to see those little flowers skirting all over the Park!
I would love to see tall white Southern period walls and fences rather than the brown wooden ones especially in the entrance, village, and garden areas. They were okay in Valdosta, but this is beautiful Cypress Gardens!
Toni Jennings is a personal friend and I adore her. But I wish an invitation would have been issued to Governor Bush in time for him to serve as the keynote speaker at the Grand Opening. Jeb Bush saved Cypress Gardens. He knows the entire story of how CG was saved and we all feel he should have been given time to put the opening in his calendar.
The metal detectors that guests walk through before
they enter the park -- is it a post 9/11 reality or do
you think it's the price one has to pay in order to
draw younger crowds with thrill rides?
Yes to both questions...
Of the more than three dozen new rides that Kent
installed in the park which one is your favorite and
I have two favorites. I love the double carousel. It is so romantic and different. I understand there are several in Europe but I had never seen a double one. I LOVE IT!!! My family also enjoys the new Ferris wheel. What a soothing way to relax and see the lake and county while a breeze gently blows in your face. I simply wish that it could last longer! Jim and I rode the wooden roller coaster twice and enjoyed it for the experience. But I will leave the thrill rides for my grand children and their friends.
As Miss Georgia 1968 you have probably seen many
beauty pageant winners come visit the park and pose
along the lush botanical beauty. What's your most
memorable experience at the original Cypress Gardens?
Pageant wise, one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me was a gracious generous favor by Mr. Pope in the mid '70's. It didn't happen at the Gardens but he did something that showed the character and generosity of the man who made Cypress Gardens great! I produced the Miss Orlando Pageant and a retired Broadway set designer created a double paddle wheel boat to roll on stage for my opening production number. I called Mr. Pope to ask if I could borrow some antebellum gowns for the number. He not only said yes, but brought over 20 antebellum gowns, hats, parasols, necklaces, hoop shirts, etc. for my contestants, outgoing queen, and since I served as Mistress of Ceremonies, he brought two for me! And he was so gracious, he made me feel like I was doing him a favor!
One personal favorite experience at the Gardens themselves happened when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, Summer. My husband and I had tried to have a baby for seven years. I finally had surgery and was successful in getting pregnant. We had adopted Shanna and she was two years old at the time. Even though I wore a size #6, I was so excited I bought maternity clothes and we went to CG to celebrate. I have special cherished photos of me in front of the gazebo holding little Shanna wearing a "Red Shirt" that said, "I'm not fat! I'm pregnant!" There are photos of Shanna from that trip in the big old wooden Dutch shoe that was formerly at the park in front of a wooden windmill.
I also loved the Easter sunrise services. On one of the trips I was thrilled to meet my favorite writer for the Day of Discovery Daily Devotionals. He had touched my life in such a profound way on many occasions. To have an opportunity to talk with him on a glorious Easter morning on the ridge overlooking beautiful Lake Eloise was another cherished moment. It makes me cry even now to think about it...
Royal Palm Theater. Mango Bay lagoon. Sunshine Sky
Adventure. As a traditionalist were you bothered by
the renaming of some of the original attractions?
Rick, you know me too well! As a traditionalist I did love the old names. I can understand Kent wanting to make his mark on the Park. But keeping those names would have meant a great deal to many people. However, I am so glad the Gardens are saved, I will perhaps eventually learn to say Sunshine Sky Adventure... then maybe again, in my heart perhaps it will always be Island in the Sky!
In February of 2005 you were honored by Governor Bush
in a statewide resolution to commend you for saving
Cypress Gardens. What was that like?
I was numbed and honored by the Resolution Governor Bush personally sponsored. Many Resolutions are sponsored by Cabinet members, but this was only the third one sponsored by Governor Bush himself. More than anyone with the exception of Bob Ballard with the DEP, Governor Bush knows the whole story that transpired to save the Gardens and the sequence in which things happened. He put into permanent State records what the Friends of Cypress Gardens did as an organization, the order they took place, and well as bestowed honor on our members. I am deeply grateful to our Governor for that. Our efforts were always focused on the State as we knew that was the only source for the needed funding. Our press releases went out weekly nationwide and we developed a following in the media all over the country that kept our story in the forefront of people's minds. The only place that did not cover what we were doing were the two local papers in Polk County. I never did completely understand that and it hurt to hear that some people questioned our motives. In Polk County, if the people were not actively involved in helping us save the Gardens, they really had no clue what was actually taking place. In fairness, the only source of information were the two local papers that pretty much excluded the Friends of Cypress Gardens, or a very fertile rumor mill. Governor Bush's Resolution allowed people to realize that "Hey! The FOCG people really must have worked hard to save our Gardens! Perhaps we don't know the whole story!"
We were honored to earn the great respect of our State officials, of the employees at the DEP, and of people around the nation. That means a great deal to people who are volunteering as a Labor of Love. As one Tallahassee magazine editor who was present for the wonderful ceremony said, "Mission Accomplished!"
Interview with Burma Continued