Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, is closing yet again in another attempt to reinvent itself.
Land South Holdings LLC, the current owner, announced Monday that this Polk County theme park, long known for its botanical gardens and hoop-skirted Southern belles, would close after this coming weekend for extensive changes that should take several months to complete.
The company said the park should reopen in March.
The new Cypress Garden won’t have a zoo or roller coasters. Instead, it will focus on three areas: the water-ski shows that were the park’s original draw, the botanical gardens that made it famous for generations, and the water park that opened only two years ago.
The zoo, which specializes in exotic animals, will be permanently closed. So will the park’s amusement rides, including the Starliner, a roller coaster that was moved to Central Florida from the Panhandle and reassembled last year.
“The operating expense of running 38 amusement rides, a zoo, the botanical gardens, a ski show and a water park are considerable,” co-owner Rob Harper stated in a news release. “It is obvious the park cannot successfully function as four parks in one.”
The park’s approximately 215 employees will be laid off during the renovations — and will be informed this week about which of them will be rehired when the park reopens, said Cypress Gardens spokeswoman Jennifer Mansfield. The park plans to “take care” of its annual-pass holders, though it has not worked out the details, Mansfield said.
The park, founded in 1936 in Winter Haven, was hurt in 2001 by a nationwide slump in travel following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It closed in 2003, but a public-private land deal saved the park from redevelopment. The next owner, Kent Buescher, renovated and reopened the attraction, but he filed for bankruptcy-court protection in September 2006, and the park changed hands again.
Earlier this year, the new owners slashed the park’s operating schedule from seven days a week to three. They also split from Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando management company that had run the park since January.
Part of the park’s problem is its location, roughly halfway between the Orlando and Tampa tourism markets and a half-hour drive from Interstate 4, which links the two metro areas.
“There was no marquee thing to draw people from Orlando or Tampa,” said Brian Blanchard, operations director for Baker Leisure Group. “There’s no way to get around it — it’s a drive to get down there.”
But Blanchard said focusing on the water park is a good call by the current owners.
“That was a big part of their business,” he said. “Eighty percent of the people in the park were in the water park.”
Rick Dantzler, a former legislator who led an effort to preserve the park in 2003, said he still believes in Cypress Gardens. The park, he said, is “part of Polk County’s soul.”
“There is a configuration of Cypress Gardens that works,” he said. “We just haven’t found it yet.”