WINTER HAVEN – Last weekend, the legendary theme park Cypress Gardens closed for four months while management said it would refocus on its water park and historic garden. In the process, it would drop its roller coasters and rides. This temporary shut down is not the first closure for the park, which has had a series of owners, including Anheuser-Busch, all of whom have not been able to make the Cypress Gardens work in modern times.
The park was founded in 1936 by Dick Pope, originally to show off his lakefront gardens. It grew with the addition of water-ski shows, many led by his son, Dick Pope Jr. At its height, it attracted the likes of the Shah of Iran, who even took a spin behind a boat! The park was constantly on television and in movies, with regular star visits from the likes of Elvis and Ester Williams.
After the park risked closure, a Friends of Cypress Gardens effort led by Burma Posey raised millions to buy easements and protect the park, all with the help of Gov. Jeb Bush, local officials and thousands of fans, former employees and neighbors, all of whom didn’t want to see the icon close.
It is now owned by Mulberry, Florida-based LandSouth Adventures LLC, part of Land South Holdings, LLC, a real estate investment company created in 2003. Cypress Gardens was managed by Steve Baker’s Orlando-based Baker Leisure Group, a theme park consultancy and management company founded 1988.
When one considers the viability of a brand that is dying, one looks at goodwill, that intangible (and tangible) sense of love for a product. In the case of Cypress Gardens, the love is more than intangible, as citizens actually contributed donations to keep the park from being sold off. If anything, the past management has not been able to properly tap into this affection with the right economic formula.
We went for the closing weekend, to observe the park at work, find where there was brand value, and recommend what could be done. A few thoughts:
- Bring back the Dick Pope Cypress Gardens retail brand. Across the United States, those of us who only came to Florida once in their childhood, still knew about Cypress Gardens through Cypress Gardens/Dick Pope Jr. water skis. They were an advertisement for the park, as well as a moneymaker. Water skiing and wake-boarding are popular sports, and the Cypress Gardens brand has the street credibility needed for licensing. It should be as big a brand as Quicksilver but as authentic as Birdwell’s. The Cypress Gardens brand becomes like Ron Jon. Instead of trying to expand the size of the park, you shrink it and instead develop a T-shirt and sportswear brand where small boutiques and push carts, like Peace Frogs, begin to appear across Florida. Surf and ski youth value tradition, so that the “antique” aspect is actually an asset, not a liability.
- Accentuate the non-profit. An economic model for Cypress Gardens to consider is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. Like Cypress Gardens, the place has roots in a garden, as well as an attraction. The Botanical Garden came out of tobacco baron Lewis Ginter’s zoo that was situated at the end of the streetcar line, as well as a men’s cycling club. It became the residence of Grace Arents, Ginter’s niece. They have a small children’s water feature, and at Christmas turn the operation into a wonderland of lighting. There are for-profit operations that run the food, under license. They have a Tea House that functions like a club, only available to members. The gift shop operation, led by Martha Anne Ellis, is superb, and could be a model for Cypress Gardens. Hint: The retail at the front of the gardens is open to all, all the time.
- Don’t forget a new generation. At the show, there was a rush of people to come over and greet the water-ski stars. To me, that looks like a great market. If Sea World can sell encounters with dolphins, than surely Cypress Gardens can sell an afternoon with a water-ski pro. Right now, there are dozens of water ski schools around the state of Florida. Currently Nautiques and Masterline sponsor the show. It would not be too hard to set up a school for week-long classes in conjunction with Cypress Gardens and these brands. (The Joe Smith Wakeboarding School at Cypress Gardens.) That way, Cypress Gardens is developing new talent and fans. At the end of the course, parents come from Chicago and see Sally and Joe perform in front of the stadium. Now that’s a vacation.
- Good for you to remove the rides. They are expensive to insure, to maintain and to supervise. Baker is smart to remove these rides, which go against the original “brand” of the park which was centered around a slow-moving water ride and gardens (see #6).
- Some rides should remain. Smaller rides like the carousel could move. At Rye Playland, some of the rides at one time were owned individually by individuals in the town. This sort of thing helps to not only spread the risk, but to provide human capital to keep the park open, and give locals a stake in its future. The Cypress Belle might be leased out, for instance.
- The electric canal boats should return. The boats that went through the garden canal should return. Remember. Cypress Gardens is a restful brand.
- Get rid of some of the Busch Gardens and Adventure Park additions. The theme park was owned by Busch, which owns Sea World and Busch Gardens Tampa. They tried to make it big time, but could not make it work. So look carefully at those changes, and all the post 1980 changes. Scale back to the future. The awful arcade, however, is a gorgeous building, far more sophisticated that it would seem, that used to be the entrance in the 1960s. It is hip. Restore it, perhaps for the entrance to the nearby water park.
- Don’t forget about the food. At a large theme park, with lots of crowd volume, you don’t have to concentrate on the food. Instead, you try to sell a lot of high-margin starchy foods like fries and funnel cake. But being a smaller park means you need the food to attract the guests, who expect to be able to eat in a non-rushed environment. How about regional foods, to go with the Florida wine shop, Florida plants and Florida atmosphere. Have fewer places to eat, but better. If the crowd volume picks up, add food stands that can be moved out of storage.
- The Garden. The Garden. You have to provide something different than Disney and Sea World. Exquisitely maintained gardens and restful places are less costly than a high-intensity tourist attraction. Cypress Gardens is part of Florida history. It allows you to operate the park with a smaller staff. The gardens (even a Jesus statue) are fantastic. And it’s not just the historic section but the topiary garden, Snively mansion garden and greenhouse. Perhaps Cypress Gardens is two attractions, working side-by-side. A for-profit water park and a non-profit botanical garden.
- Wholesome sexy. A dichotomy? Perhaps. At Cypress, it’s wholesome to see a shirtless guy with a hot chick hanging all over her, completely improperly in totally suggestive directions, in a bathing suit. That’s because you have to get CLOSE to do the trick. One can create athletic sex appeal in a performance that attracts both sexes but at the same time not be edgy.
- Don’t be afraid of the Mouse. Some might see this as competition, and it sort of siphoned off business. But today, there are thousands more visiting Florida than there ever were in the 1950s. So don’t try to be like them. I recall the advice of C.L. Slonaker, a Richmond, Virginia choirmaster and organist. He had a small church, but put on choral performances worthy of St. Martin in the Fields. He never had enough staff to really pull it off, but did it anyway. Fewer things of guality, not quantity, always won with him, and his audience. Remember. Dick Pope helped to BRING Walt to Florida. Cypress is part of the Disney story.
- Bathing beauties at the pool! The Florida-shaped pool at the end of the garden, the scene in MGM’s Easy To Love, is legendary, and it is the perfect spot for photographs. Perhaps it needs a platform, so that one can have a picture take with the pool in the background.
- Snively Weddings and Events. The focus on getting the Snively mansion in shape for weddings is perfect. For historic house museums, events bring in needed revenue. In addition, they are perfect for the corporate meetings business. They do this, but it needs to be ramped up and turned upscale. They can then host Rotary, clubs, reunions, etc.
- Have memberships, not season passes. A change in thinking will help here. Cypress Gardens ought to be a cause. And causes need members. Members get a newsletter. They get discounts. They get to hang out and be invited to a yearly party. They even get a chance to donate! I would guess that members might not just be from around Polk County and Central Florida, but anyone who is connected or values water skiing, botany, pop culture and Florida history.
- Use volunteers. It is hard for a place that has run for profit to ask for volunteers, but how about this. What if areas like the gardens, which have an easement by the Trust for Public Lands, are manned and partially maintained by volunteers, with professional supervision. If the historic parts of the park go non-profit, it can easily recruit retired volunteers to preserve this institution.
- Focus on food. At Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, part of the main attraction is the high quality of the food. There is a sit down restaurant, a Tea House, where members could bring guests. It did not only attract members who were there just to visit. It attracted corporate lunches. In Winter Haven, there are not many really upscale options. A 60-seat lunch spot would do a great business with regulars (the retired who have time) but could also be a place for bridal parties, Rotary breakfasts, etc. when it is not open.
- Ditch the parking charges. If you can afford it, parking charges make for less regular visitation. It also adds extra cost as you have to direct people around, and run a shuttle. Instead, if the crowds are smaller, let them walk in.
- Open up the shopping village to the public. This is the same idea as Downtown Disney, but in miniature. You have a place where you can go all the time that there is no charge. It provides income for the park and gives locals a place to go. Why restrict casual visitors from the gift shops? The area would be so much more interesting if it had some leased boutiques. Think of the options if you didn’t have to pay to get in. Scrapbook store, with classes. Surf and skateboard shop. Cigar shop. Wine and cheese lunch spot. Ice cream store. The ticket area then moves inside, just past the shops. The nearby Century Retail Town Center at Cypress Gardens becomes a partner.
- Community arts and theater. The theater becomes an icon for the Winter Haven community as well as the garden visitors. If the village is open to the community (see #15), it can be leased for local graduation ceremonies, concerts and shows. Everything from theater companies to chamber concerts can use it.
- Love those Aquamaids. Love those Southern Belles. The beauty of Cypress Gardens was not enough to drive visitors. The Popes were promoters, above all, and promoted their Aquamaids and Southern Belles. Today, there are so many unwholesome paths for girls who want to get a touch of fame. The Aquamaids (and Southern Belles) are a great avenue for the aspirational girl who wants to get started in show business. Perhaps the Southern Belle program can partner with Barbizon, or other acting schools? Nearby Orlando is packed with these aspirational girls; perhaps Disney could support the Cypress Gardens Southern Belle program as a farm team for its cast?
- Don’t give up. People love this place. It really is management that has been out of touch.
We would love it if current and former employees and visitors would add their own ideas here about how Cypress Gardens could be made viable.