It was back to the future at Legoland Florida this morning as some of the original Southern belles who once greeted guests at Cypress Gardens welcomed community leaders, elected officials, and member of the media to the long-closed Florida Pool and Oriental Garden.
Although I’m now a local, like most Floridians I’m a transplant who fled the north. Even though Cypress Gardens was Florida’s oldest theme park, I never got to visit it before it closed down for good in 2009 after faltering for many years. In its heyday, it was a spot for celebrities to hobnob, and its iconic Florida Pool was featured (albeit briefly) in the 1953 Esther Williams movie “Easy to Love.”
Unfortunately, a theme park that depends primarily on gardens as its draw wasn’t economically sustainable in an era of the biggest, baddest thrill rides and high technology shows. Then, of course, there’s competition like the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, which pretty much dwarfs anything a small theme park can possibly do.
By the time I moved to Florida in 2004, the park’s latest re-invention strategy had been hammered by the infamous hurricane trio of Charley, Frances, and Jeanne. Its wooden roller coaster was even christened the Triple Hurricane in homage to one of the worst years for storms in Central Florida history.
The park limped along erratically until September, 2009, when it was shuttered for good. While the loss of some rides and a water park might have seemed inconsequential, the fact that it was home to the historic gardens added a layer of urgency to somehow saving the classic attraction. Would the gorgeous gardens become a waterfront condominium complex? Would anyone ever be able to see the Florida Pool and take pictures by the sprawling banyan tree again, or would they become just another memory? Many classic Florida roadside attractions are no more, and Cypress Gardens seemed fated to follow in their footsteps.
Then, in January, 2010, Merlin Entertainments announced that it was building its latest Legoland theme park on the site. Legoland Florida opened in October, 2011, with much of the gardens restore and open to the public. However, the Oriental Garden and Florida Pool were still off-limits.
All that changed today (March 5, 2014) as the park’s general manager, Adrian Jones, teamed up with Bob Gernert, former Winter Haven Chamber Executive Director and Cypress Gardens historian, to cut the ceremonial ribbon with a pair of Lego scissors and declare the Florida Pool and Oriental Garden once again open to the public.
I was fortunate enough to be there for the opening, but perhaps the best part of all was the return of many of the original Southern belles, who used to stroll around in the original Cypress Gardens. When the park became Legoland Florida, they included Lego belles as an homage, but I was always sorry I’d missed the real thing. Now, it was like the past had overlaid the present as the live belles joined their Lego counterparts and the famous pool was lined with citrus as it had once been in the past, but it also was filed with a colorful cache of floating Lego bricks. Don’t worry, purists, the bricks will soon be returned to their normal home in the Legoland Florida Water Park.
Even though I’d never made it to Cypress Gardens, it gave me a sense of pride to see an old classic area restored to its former beauty and once again open to be enjoyed. There’s no way the park could ever have sustained itself in its original form. Fortunately, with the Lego brand name behind it, it has new life to bring memories to older visitors who remember it in its heyday and to create new memories with younger kids who come for the Lego models and rides and stay to gape in awe at things like the banyan, Buddha statue, gazebo and pool.
Will Legoland Florida restore even more of the original Cypress Gardens? Adrian Jones said the next big project is work on the canals, along with incorporating more Lego touches into the current garden areas. However, he strongly hinted that people who miss the topiaries might someday get a chance to see them again.
The canals need a lot of work, so it will be quite some time (if ever) before you can expect the classic boat ride to return, but there’s plenty to enjoy in the meantime, and it changes with every season. I love being a local because Cypress Gardens is a new experience as winter segues into spring, which brings new changes when it becomes summer and again when it tapers off into fall.
If you’re planning to visit Legoland Florida and you want to get a lot done, head for the back of the park as soon as you get inside. People are drawn in by the Island in the Sky, the carousel, and other attractions at the front of the park. Resist the urge to stop! I repeat, do not stop! Start with the Dragon Coaster, or even Lost Kingdom Adventure, and work your way towards the back. You’ll be ahead of the crowd, which tends to move pretty slow, and your waits for things like Coastersaurus, Boating School, and Technic will be almost non-existent.
Sure, I have a distinct advantage with this strategy because I don’t have kids, and Legoland Florida is packed with families who have little ones in tow. That slows them down considerably. If you’re bringing kids, be prepared to hustle them a little more than they’re used to. Trust me, that initial rush will be worth it when you enjoy the major attractions with short lines.
Since this post is mainly about the garden, I’ll toss in another secret. Whatever you do, don’t visit the Cypress Gardens area when the pirate show lets out. The theater is right by the garden entrance, so people are naturally drawn there. Go in later in the day when the park is getting crowded and the show is still in session. You’ll be able to enjoy a peaceful oasis, knowing that you already did all the major rides.
If you’d like to take a tour of the first sections of Cypress Gardens that reopened in 2011, led by Landscape Manager Nigel Dunning, check out the video below.
Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog In the Shadow of the Mouse.