Cypress Gardens: Florida’s Oldest Theme Park is New Again
by Carol Matthews


My recent, and first, visit to central Florida’s Cypress Gardens Botanical Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida was at the beginning of its 70th Anniversary year. It is certainly not looking its age!

After going through a few hard times in the past decade, the theme park — known for its beautiful gardens, water skiing show, and Southern Belles — has been rejuvenated and reborn as the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. Although more rides and entertainment have been added, its renewal is primarily the result of the conceptual brilliance of the new owner, Kent Buescher. Buescher is bringing back what endeared the theme park to visitors in the first place.

The renewal includes the refurbishment of the world-famous pyramid at the water ski show; the summer school at which young people are taught the basics of water skiing; the Junior Belle program (resuming in March), which enhances the Southern Belles program and their lovely antebellum dresses; and the refurbished paddleboat, the Cypress Belle, the latter providing daytime sight-seeing and nightly dinner cruises.The Botanical Garden cruises through the quiet waterways will resume in February, and are an especially delightful way to see the park’s natural splendor.

The botanical grandeur of the park — its prime focus — is now even more exciting and at the same time a serene experience. You can now meander through 16 acres displaying 8000 different kinds of indigenous and imported flora, including trees, shrubs and flowers. Plants from 90 countries around the world can be found growing here. As a botanical showcase for garden lovers especially, Cypress Gardens has not only stayed true to its original mandate but has taken it even further.

Flowers in the botanical garden are found blooming as Mother Nature intended, but the Topiary Trail includes man-made structures that appeal to the imagination — including a giant peacock, a rabbit, and a centipede. Colors and shapes catch your eye wherever you turn. Children are awed by the size, and adults by the artistry. Another special sight is the cascading waterfall surrounded by moss-covered rocks, graceful palms, ferns, and flowers.

Both gardens can be experienced to their fullest by drifting along paved walkways. And these are fully wheelchair and stroller accessible, and both can be rented at the entrance to the park.These unique botanical gardens can also be enjoyed by cruising the canals in small boats; from the water you get a special perspective especially appealing to amateur photographers. There are daily garden tours (included in the entrance fee) led by experienced guides who are also knowledgeable from a horticultural point of view; and later in the spring, another innovation will be introduced — guided tours by cell phone.

Depending on which route you follow, one of the first vistas you come upon is the gazebo (also known as the Love Chapel) where over 300 wedding ceremonies take place each year. The delicate white-domed structure is set atop a hill; and a wide expanse of lawn and strategically designed flowerbeds gracefully descend to the reflecting pond below. The 80-foot-high bougainvillea to the left of the scene provides a stunning accent when in bloom. From February 10th to the 14th a four-day wedding-vow renewal festival named “Beaus and Arrows” will also be celebrated. This is an invitation to all married couples — especially those whose original wedding ceremonies took place at Cypress Gardens — to revisit the memories of their wedding day and enjoy the daily receptions complete with wedding cake that the Gardens provide.

Farther along the path is the impressive Banyan tree, planted in 1936 from a three-gallon pot by the founder of Cypress Gardens, Dick Pope Sr. Typical of the informational-educational enhancements throughout the property, a sign near this impressive tree explains: “The Banyan’s incredible aerial roots grow down into the soil from the tree’s crown, and eventually form secondary trunks. These trunks serve as a support structure for the massive canopy and allow the crown to continue its expansion.” It is a remarkable sight.

Towards the rear of the botanical gardens is the Oriental Garden, serene in its green tranquility, with meticulously placed rocks and stone lanterns interspersed throughout in true Japanese style. A large Buddha statue draws you to his quiet island. It is a lesson in cultural landscaping.

Among the many other horticultural delights are the abundant collections of azaleas, camellias (one of Dick Sr.’s favourite flowers), and roses. There are also many subtropical and tropical plants and trees including banana, palms, hibiscus, and orchids.

The gardens sustained considerable damage during the three hurricanes of 2004. But under the leadership of horticulturist Glenn McKelvie, challenges became opportunities, and lemonade was made from the lemons. Where in recent years the gardens had become overgrown, now beautiful scenes of lush growth and radiant colors have been carefully re-designed and crafted. Formerly dark and gloomy corners are now brightened, and new unique displays have been created that give them a new focus. Some of the more interesting and harmonious are the upturned roots of the cypress trees that were downed during the storms. Planted with ferns, orchids, and lovely flowering plants, the stumps look as though they have always been turned up-side-down and adorned with nature’s beauty.

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park is a great spot for family visits and an appreciation of natural beauty. It is a place for people for all ages, and of course, considerably less hectic than larger theme parks. It is both old and new, nostalgic, forward-thinking, and well worth a visit.

For More Information

Visit the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park website.

The Coordinates

6000 Cypress Gardens Boulevard
Winter Haven, FL 33884
(863) 324-2111

How to Get There

Midway between Orlando and Tampa, the park is located in Winter Haven, less than 60 minutes from both metro areas. Cypress Gardens is off U.S. Highway 27 south of Interstate 4.

From Orlando: I-4 WEST to exit 55 (U.S. Hwy 27 SOUTH). Continue South on U.S. Hwy. 27. Turn right off U.S. Highway 27 at State Road 540/Cypress Gardens Boulevard. Park is 4 miles on the left.

From Tampa: I-4 EAST to Polk Pkwy East. Exit State Road 540 East, Winter Lake Road. Follow to the end and turn left on Highway 17. Turn right at State Road 540/Cypress Gardens Boulevard. Park is 3 miles on right.


The General admission ticket (regular $39.95 plus tax and $7.00 parking) provides access to all activities in the park including rides, shows, attractions, animals and concerts. Admission includes a second day free for six days following the park visit.

Concerts and Special Events

Blooms and Blossoms A flower and garden extravaganza (February 17th – April 2nd 2006)

Mums Up Copious displays of chrysanthemums in arches, topiaries, and other forms, this year’s event is a tribute to the park’s 70th Anniversary. (November)

An Old-Fashioned Christmas The park will be full of all the sights, sounds and scents of Christmas past, a haven from the hustle and bustle of the modern season. (November and December)

The Cypress Garden Amphitheater will be home to more than 50 all-star concerts and special events yearly. General seating is included in the price of admission and guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs to set up.