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Orlando’s Cypress Gardens All Spruced Up, Ready to Bloom

Cypress Gardens has long been a haven for retirees and families drawn by the park’s lush gardens and signature water-ski shows. But after emerging from bankruptcy last fall with new owners, Central Florida’s oldest theme park is looking for new ways to re-establish itself as a park that generations of parents will want to share with their children.

The Winter Haven attraction is entering its first summer under the management of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando-based theme-park consulting company that’s determined to make the historic park profitable.

“It’s been an uncertain future here for a while,” said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group. “We want to just run it and make it work. It’s a gem.”

The botanical park with its trademark Southern belles strolling the gardens was opened by Dick and Julie Pope in 1936. It had fallen prey to larger, more modern amusement parks by 2003, when it closed amid diminishing attendance. An effort by a new owner from Georgia to revive the park failed. It was sold in a bankruptcy auction last fall to Land South Holdings LLC, a real estate investment company based in Mulberry. The price: $16.9 million, about $500,000 less than the initial asking price.

“Obviously, our expectations are to continue to solidify ourselves as a regional, family park here in Florida,” said Brian Philpot, a managing member of Land South Holdings. “And, obviously, to make money.”

With a park carrying 72 years of history, the new owners and managers know they have to be careful as they make changes. Many of their loyal patrons feel a sense of ownership, and many employees have grown up there as well. They expect to see the historic elements, like the water-ski shows, the Southern belles and the gardens that initially put the Cypress Gardens Florida Theme Park on the vacation map.

“It’s like opening a new park, but with the baggage of tradition,” Baker said.

To revive the interest of local residents, the park has turned to corporate events and other group business — such as weddings, quinceaneras and private parties. Already this spring, it has hosted events for companies such as Bright House Networks, State Farm insurance, and the Kissimmee Utility Authority. The new owners recently renovated the Magnolia Mansion, which overlooks the Plantation Gardens and Lake Eloise, for hosting group events.

“It adds revenue to the gates. It adds revenue to the food and beverage side,” said John Stine, a senior consultant with Baker Leisure Group. “They come in with the company outing, and they realize what’s available.”

Corporate events have long been a staple for regional parks. In some markets, group sales can account for as much as 30 percent of a park’s total attendance, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting company based in Cincinnati.

“Corporate outings are a mainstay of our business,” Speigel said. “It’s something that is quite familiar in our industry, and something that all the park operators have to do.”

The park has made other changes, however, including improvements to the Nature’s Way animal area, where it is planning a behind-the-scenes tour. Another popular addition: a Florida wine-and-food shop, which offers locally produced wines and locally made candy. Food options throughout the park have diversified even at the fast-food level, with fish tacos, shrimp po’ boys and yucca fries joining the usual cheeseburgers and french fries.

In addition, many of the park’s major improvements are only a few years old, such as a new rides area, a giant wooden roller coaster, a 13,000-person amphitheater for concerts and a water park.

Land South and Baker Leisure have already faced challenges in operating the park, which drew more than 1 million visitors just a few years ago.

When they started, Baker said, he and his team couldn’t even find the list of existing pass-holders to use in their new marketing efforts. The park’s technology needed updating and the work force, weighed down by the park’s long-running financial uncertainties, suffered from low morale. On top of all that, the extensive drought that has affected much of the Southeastern U.S. in recent years has left the water level of Lake Eloise so low that the Cypress Belle paddle boat cannot operate.

But there’s an upside, too. Although the park exists in the shadow of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, it boasts a tranquil atmosphere with very few waiting lines. Employees are encouraged to be themselves, so patrons are likely to encounter a pleasantly sarcastic ride operator retired here from Brooklyn, or a shop owner who informs patrons that some Florida wines are a fine way to avoid a hangover. And Cypress Garden’s admission is roughly half what the giant parks charge.

“We’ve got to continue to let people know that Cypress Gardens is here. We’ve got a great time and a great value,” Philpot said. “It’s not your parents’ or your grandparents’ Cypress Gardens.”

Information courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

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