The trouble with Florida is that - like Holland- it wants to be under the ocean. Basically a gigantic sand spit jutting into the Atlantic, Florida has no elevation to speak of. A slight undulation in the land that might be used as a landscaping feature elsewhere is considered a hill in Florida. In the Sunshine State a 200-unit housing development with a 3-foot elevation in one corner will be named "Orange Blossom Hills" or "Royal Palm Heights".

The difference between Florida and Holland is that while the Dutch try to keep the sea out with dikes, Floridians do the opposite. They dig big holes everywhere so the excess water will stay in a confined space instead of draining into the ocean. These holes, called "retaining ponds" by engineers and "prime waterfront property" by real estate developers, are a common feature in Florida.

One of the best examples of "going with the flow" is Cypress Gardens, the grandaddy of tourist attractions in Central Florida. Here was a tract of land just a tad too far north for good citrus crops, a bit too wet and boggy for cattle-raising, too far from either coastline for beach-loving visitors, and badly situated for "your dream home in Florida" during the land boom years of the 30's. What to do, what to do?

The solution was to dig a bed for a large lake and surround it with formal gardens and shady groves : Cypress Gardens, started in the mid-1930's, soon became a well-known tourist attraction. Women attired in antebellum gowns strolled the garden paths, a wedding gazebo furnished the fairy tale ending for romantic couples, picturesque canals lent themselves to boat rides, and the lake itself - outfitted with a shoreline grandstand - offered water shows several times a day. Here attractive young women, modestly clad in one-piece bathing suits and rubber caps, performed on water skis.

Young Esther Williams, the swimming star of Hollywood musicals who first gained renown in MGM's 1944 filming of "Bathing Beauty", was often at Cypress Gardens for location shots during her 15-year movie career.

This was long before the conception of the Walt Disney World in nearby Orlando. When the Magic Kingdom first appeared, Cypress Gardens welcomed the inclusion of another tourist destination in its immediate neighborhood. With its more than 8,000 varieties of plants on 200 acres, it was unique in offering a tropical theme.

Sea World with its whales and dolphins quickly followed Walt Disney World, Epcot Center soon appeared, then Universal Studios Orlando. Today the area surrounding Orlando seems to be one huge entertainment center. Cypress Gardens, with it's quiet paths and sparkling lake, could not compete. In April, 2003 the park was closed for financial reasons.

At both state and local level, there was an immediate outcry from people who promised to do whatever they could to protect what they thought of as an historical and cultural icon. On January 27, 2004 the Florida Cabinet, led by Govenor Jeb Bush, voted unanimously to pledge $11 million toward a deal to rescue Cypress Gardens. It is expected that Cypress Gardens will reopen in several months.

In an analysis of the deal, state officials noted that Cypress Gardens "played a monumental role in Florida's transformation from a regional hinterland to a national and international destination."

"Only in Florida," stated Govenor Bush, "would this be a cultural resource, perhaps." Perhaps he is correct.

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Update : April 2004

Cypress Gardens has been purchased by an "adventure park" entrepreneur, Kent Buescher, who has rechristened the property "Cypress Gardens Adventure Park". At a recent news conference the new owner stated that the park, which he hopes to reopen within two months, will be divided into two sections, east and west.

The east, or "new", section will feature 36 rides in a carnival-like atmosphere : roller coasters, thrill rides, water rides, a Ferris wheel, and bumper cars. A section of the old park which once held shops and food areas will be converted to a "turn-of-the century village" specializing in "made-before-your-eyes" souvenirs. It is not clear how much of the original parkland is being used for the Adventure Park rides.

The west section will retain the historical features of the park which merited the $11 million rescue deal pledged by the Florida Cabinet in January 2004. These include the botanical and topiary gardens, a butterfly arboretum, water ski and ice skating shows, and a 12,000-seat amphitheater.

Buescher stated that the goal is not to compete with the large amusement parks in the Orlando area. His intention is to provide a venue for local families - and perhaps some tourists - to enjoy the rides, the gardens, and a soon-to-be-built water park at decent prices.

For further commentary on this, please see my entry as "iamkaym" under Day Log of April 20, 2004 .

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