Gardens’ Gates Have Reopened

By DAVE NICHOLSON
Nov 27, 2004

WINTER HAVEN – As a picture-perfect day unfolded, the Bailey family, of Chicago, settled on a sunny hill to watch the water-ski show at the reborn Cypress Gardens Adventure Park.

Tourists such as Greg and Julie Bailey and their 2 1/2-year- old son, Jack, may hold the key to the success of the park, which is trying to broaden its appeal to a new generation.

“I really like the midway and all the rides for kids,” said Julie Bailey, 31, who had been to Cypress Gardens before because her parents, Harlan and Judy Bettenhausen, live in Lakeland.

The Baileys, the Bettenhausens, relative Stephanie Bettenhausen and family friend Barb Dibbern were among people on hand Friday as Cypress Gardens reopened more than a year after closing amid declining attendance.

Valdosta, Ga., businessman Kent Buescher has sunk more than $50 million into such features as new rides to appeal to more families while keeping alive Cypress Gardens – a decades-old, Southern-style tourist tradition.

About 10,000 people walked through the turnstiles by noon. The park was expecting to reach its goal of 18,000 visitors by the time featured entertainer Kenny Rogers took the stage at 7 p.m.

The crowd appeared to be a mixture of old fans and the younger people Cypress Gardens is trying to reach with its push to broaden its appeal.

Veteran visitors Chuck and Gloria Heise, of Davenport, were delighted to be there for the first day.

“We’re so happy to see it saved. It would have been a national loss” if the park had closed for good, said Chuck Heise, 69.

Concessions seemed a bit pricey, but otherwise the day was wonderful, he said as the couple listened to a band perform country music.

A few steps away, 74-year- old Lee Rearigh, of Leesburg, was singing along.

Rearigh had season passes when Cypress Gardens closed in April 2003. He liked what he saw in the expanded and refurbished park.

“I think it will do well. I’m not too interested in the rides, but there was a time in my life when I would have been,” said Rearigh, who was at the park with his wife, Theresa.

The rides are precisely what made the day enjoyable for teenagers Nichole Stickle and Telitha Barksdale, of Sebring, who treated Stickle’s 4-year- old sister, Karen Giddens, to the Fiesta Express, a slow- moving kiddie train on an elevated track.

Preview Days

The park’s grand opening is Dec. 9. Cypress Gardens is holding what it calls preview days through Sunday and again Dec. 3-5 as it prepares for the big day. During the preview days, not all the park’s amenities are open. On Friday, the Ferris wheel and some other rides were not in operation, and workers were planting flowers in one location.

The park traces its roots to 1936, when it started on Lake Eloise. Its trademarks became lush landscaping, young women dressed as Southern belles and professionals who performed feats of skill on water skis. That lush landscaping survives, as do the Southern belles.

Then times and tourists’ tastes changed. On an unseasonably cold day last year, the former owners announced the attraction was closing.

It might have stayed that way had it not been for government officials, community leaders and Buescher, who also owns Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta.

Perfect Weather

The high was about 70 and the day was sunny Friday as the curtain rose on a new era for the attraction.

June Young, 66, made her first visit to Cypress Gardens in about 35 years. She took in the ski show from a motorized scooter.

She and her husband, Lester, 65, moved to Lake Wales at about the same time the theme park closed in 2003.

“Today has been beautiful. We just live three miles down the road, so I think we’ll be here often,” she said.

After an afternoon performance, the water-ski team – united again – lined up outside the stadium to greet well- wishers. Skier Shaune Stoskopf posed for a photograph with Greg Luce, of Sebring, and his daughter Sophia, 1.

Stoskopf, who has been with the ski show about 13 years, and Angela Yauchler, who has skied at Cypress Gardens for 8 1/2 years, were beaming.

“I’m very glad to be back,” Stoskopf said.

“The show’s only going to get better from now on.”

That show, through Feb. 28, will be $29.95 for all comers. Children under 3 years old are admitted to the park for free. After Feb. 28, the rate will be $34.95, with children 3 to 9 years old and people 55 or older admitted for $29.95.

The admission fee covers rides.

©2004, Media General Inc

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