LEGOLAND Florida and the Legacy of Cypress Gardens

Classic Dick Pope publicity promotion. Pope is at the piano.

Classic Dick Pope publicity promotion. Pope is at the piano.

In January 2010, Nick Varney stood overlooking Lake Eloise and told the invited audience, “When I saw the Cypress Gardens site, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew I had found the site for LEGOLAND Florida!” Varney is the CEO of Merlin Entertainments, the parent company of the LEGOLAND franchise.
 
Mr. Varney’s admiration for the location was well-founded. For the previous 74 years, a tropical wonderland known as Florida Cypress Gardens had operated amongst botanical gardens, Southern belles and world-champion water skiers.
 
The original Cypress Gardens Park had been the vision of Richard “Dick” Pope and his wife, Julie. Beginning in the depths of the Great Depression of the early 1930s, the Popes had carved first gardens and series of canals out of swampy land between lakes Summit and Eloise.
 
The park officially opened on January 2, 1936, and the flora it featured had literally been created from cuttings from the homes of local residents. It had not been an easy project, starting first as a proposed “public garden” and, when local backers lost confidence, finished at the personal risk of the Popes.
 
The park found an audience and started to grow. When Mr. Pope was called to service in World War II, Mrs. Pope managed the enterprise. Proximity to military training bases at Bartow and Orlando, the park had enough traffic to eke out an existence. Two significant events led to hallmarks of the Gardens. In the early '40s, cold weather froze the flame vines at the entrance. Not wanting the tourists to arrive and enter through the dead foliage, Mrs. Pope dressed two employees in flowing dresses she called “old fashioneds.” The girls in costumes were so popular they led the park to adopt “Southern Belles” as a complement to the flowers and landscaping in the botanical gardens.
 
In another ironic turn of events, visiting military personnel encountered Mrs. Pope and inquired as to “what time did the ski show begin?” It seems they had seen a newspaper photo of the gardens, and there were skiers on the lake in the distance. Without hesitation, Mrs. Pope replied, “3:30.” She then proceeded to call the school and have her children and their friends brought to the park where they performed a rudimentary “ski show” for the audience. It would grow to become the famous Cypress Gardens Ski Show traveling the country and the world, bringing attention to the park.
 
Following the war, the park grew. Newsreels featured various park features. Mr. Pope, a promotional genius, would return to attract Hollywood and then television to his “Beautiful Cypress Gardens.” Such films as Moon Over Miami and On an Island With You filmed scenes there. Easy to Love was a 1953 water-based musical that glamorized the Cypress Gardens story starring Esther Williams and Van Johnson. By the time Disney World opened in 1971, Cypress Gardens was the number-one tourist destination in Florida.
 
It would continue to thrive for a time until the larger parks in Orlando caused attendance to plummet. Florida’s roadside attractions began to disappear. The Pope family sold the park in 1985, and a series of owners tried to revitalize to no avail. It eventually closed in 2003.
 
A public outcry led the state of Florida to step in helping protect the site. A new owner stepped in and added thrill rides for more appeal. Unfortunately, a series of hurricanes in 2004 led to bankruptcy.
 
Polk County purchased the title to the original botanical gardens and shoreline. In 2014 those areas were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
 
LEGOLAND Florida opened on the site in November 2011. The company has embraced the Gardens’ legacy and brought millions of happy families to enjoy what one LEGOLAND official calls “the most beautiful LEGOLAND in the world.” Dick and Julie Pope would be proud.