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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Florida's First Commercial Tourist Theme Park

By Jim Bishop.

In previous articles I've reminisced about our 1960's home landscape in Plantation, Florida. Besides the plethora of plants and natural landscapes in Florida, there were massive developments created out of the former swamps. The swamps just to the east of the beaches of South Florida were dredged to create subdivisions of finger islands – long residential islands of homes surrounded by water with a road in the middle. At Christmastime tour boats took tourists on nightly cruises to gawk at the holiday lights and decorations of the yachts and lushly landscaped mansions that line the waterways. High-end restaurants and night clubs used landscaping to create a lush jungle-like atmosphere. My grandmother’s favorite was Patricia Murphy’s, as famous for its beautiful landscaping as their butter filled popovers. I recall a Mother’s Day meal and her gushing about the fragrance of gardenias and orange blossoms on their patio.

In the pre-Disneyworld Florida of the early 1960’s, amusement parks were starting to move beyond thrill rides and shows to create a tightly controlled utopian environment safe for tourists to spend the entire day and hopefully lots of money. One of the earliest was Cypress Gardens, located in Central Florida and first opened in 1936 as a private botanical garden. Cypress Gardens was the dream of the energetic Dick Pope Sr. and his wife. Pope used photographs of the swamps to layout the winding paths and gardens to make sure the result was a very photogenic garden. See for a longer history of how the Popes turned a 16 acre swamp into a garden. Many movies (some featuring Ester Williams swimming in the Florida shaped swimming pool) and TV commercials were filmed here in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Bishop's sitting on bent over palm tree at Cypress Gardens

By the mid 60’s Cypress Gardens was known for waterski shows and manicured gardens that featured young women dressed as Southern Belles resting leisurely in the gardens. The ski show and gardens were an odd combination, but worked well and provided something of interest for both men and women. Compared to the alligator wresting and ride-based amusement parks, Cypress Gardens was far more refined. It was a pedestrian park and given the automobile culture of Florida that in itself was a novel idea. We visited Cypress Gardens on a summer vacation, watching a ski show and strolling through the gardens. The soil dredged from canals was mounded into small hills and planted, that too was very unusual in flat Florida. Planting was done on a massive scale with large beds of colorful annuals and tropical plants with a backdrop of palms. We strolled along waterways lined with cypress trees and draped in Spanish moss. Strategically placed antebellum-costumed Southern Belles smiled and waved to the passersby. We sat on one of the “Seminole palms“– supposedly small palm trees that were bent over decades ago by Seminoles to mark the trails - and had a family photo taken (See photo). My skeptical engineer father had serious doubts about the veracity of the story. While it was certainly an escape from everything else in Florida, for our mid-western tastes, we found it just a bit too contrived and almost kitschy.

Over the decades, Cypress Gardens has gone through many problems; severe freezes, hurricanes, and competition from more exciting parks. After several unsuccessful reincarnations, today it is Legoland Florida, but vestiges of the original gardens remain along with Southern Belles constructed from Lego bricks. Still, Cypress Gardens was the first of the highly landscaped central Florida destination theme parks, a tradition that lives on at Disneyworld, EPCOT, Busch Gardens, and Legoland.

Jim Bishop has been a member of SDHS since the first meeting in 1994 and became SDHS president in 2011.

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