Friends of Cypress Gardens evolved in a hurry as an
activist group to preserve Cypress Gardens. How did it
come about and how quickly did it grow?
I served on the Florida Arts Council and grew up in a political family. While on the FAC, our main job was to decide who would receive $36,500 million in annual grants. I knew a bit about how State funding works. I have also been a lifelong preservationist and knew we had to act quickly. Once something is gone, it is gone forever. My Georgia colleagues in Atlanta learned that AFTER the magnificent train terminal was imploded to make way for MARTA. Atlanta was the hub of the south even before the Civil War and was even called Terminus before her name was changed to Atlanta. Yet that chunk of their history was forever destroyed. That horrific act strengthened the resolve of many of us and their Historic Society was activated just in time to save the Fox Theatre which according to the late Sir Rudolf Bing with the Metropolitan Opera, has the best acoustics of any theatre in the U.S. Over the years I saw many things that were precious to my soul forever destroyed. I knew we had only a small window of opportunity to save Cypress Gardens.
Governor Bush called DEP's Deputy Secretary Bob Ballard to start the State process. Bob contacted Senator J.D. Alexander and he set up the first meeting in Winter Haven. We attended the first two meetings held in Winter Haven. We were stunned to see local leaders pushing to save only 37 and finally 75 acres. We knew ALL the park had to be saved to make it financially viable. I founded the Friends of Cypress Gardens to have more clout with the press and with the government. We knew we had a long road ahead and much to do to convince the State to give the money it would take to save the Park. My dear friend, Pageantry publisher, Charlie Dunn, sponsored our beautiful website. I stayed at the computer literally 18-20 hours per day and in the beginning tried to answer each e-mail personally. I finally had to start sending newsletters and we encouraged everyone to forward those letters to their entire address books. The people did just that! Eventually we grew to have members in all 50 states and 24 countries. As an amateur, I put together a national press list and started sending press releases each week to keep the media involved. I took the Belles immediately to Tallahassee to lobby our Governor and legislators. I designed and had made 300 of our "Save ALL of Cypress Gardens" Red Shirts and buttons for that trip to give to them as gifts. We later put in a second order to make a statement at the first public meeting in Tallahassee. And make a statement they did! Our organization grew quickly because people loved Cypress Gardens and frankly because we worked so hard.
I must emphasize... this could not have happened had it not been for my daughter Shanna. Shanna had been away for five years in college and then at work as the Concierge at the Ritz Carlton in Georgia. She now has her own apartment. But in God's plans, since it did not work with Adam's father, during that critical 1-1/2 years, she lived with us. As a new Mom, she edited every letter, entered the hundreds and hundreds of members that came in, packed and mailed countless beta tapes all over the country when we had my friend Delta Burke make the PSA, traveled with me to Winter Haven, Tallahassee six times, and Valdosta twice. She brought many meals to my desk and every single morning around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. she stood at the doorway of my office begging me to go to bed... but she would not go herself until she knew I was getting at least a few hours of rest. All of us who love Cypress Gardens are blessed that God allowed me to adopt Shanna Posey when she was only three days old. She is most special...
When it became clear that there was a chance that the
park grounds wouldn't simply be razed over for the
sake of real estate development two prolific suitors
stepped up -- Orlando real estate magnate David Siegel
and Wild Adventures park owner Kent Buescher. You
initially sided with Siegel and his vision of
transforming the park into a Smithsonian of the South.
While you also eventually embraced Buescher's plan are
there any parts of Siegel's master plan that you would
like to see incorporated in Cypress Gardens Adventure
To clarify, the "Smithsonian of the South" was my idea. One environmentalist who did not want the funding used for CG tried to tell me we would not qualify for "Florida Forever" because it was designated for cultural. So in the early stages I called friends who were great collectors and got them to agree in writing to place their world class collections at Cypress Gardens. For example, one man had the largest collection of "Gone With the Wind" memorabilia in the world valued at $66 million. "The Sports Hall of Fame" was going to move their museum there. Charlie Dunn agreed to create a "Pageant Hall of Fame" in honor or his late brother and get pageants and queens from all over the world to donate items through his publication "Pageantry" magazine. We planned to make it a place where collectors could leave their magnificent fortunes as had been done at the Smithsonian. We did everything we could think of to get the attention and respect of elected officials so they would vote to give the needed funding. David Siegel loved my vision and the phrase and asked permission to use it.
I initially thought perhaps David and Kent could partner to save the Park. David said he would consider it so Shanna and I drove to Valdosta to present the idea to Kent. He thought it was good since he would have to borrow the money. But when David saw our photographs of Wild Adventures, he did not like the idea of a "Carnival" being built at Cypress Gardens and said he could not partner with Kent. We supported David because he embraced the same visions we had, he had the money to do it, and he has 15,000 guests per night he could send to the Park.
However, David wanted the State to purchase the Park and then he would lease it for 99 years. The State's appraisal eventually came in for $14,500 million. In "Florida Forever", the State is not legally allowed to give more than the State appraisal. In the end, Larry Maxwell wanted $22 million and had pulled the 10 acres that would desperately be needed for parking. So David pulled out. I think he believed until the very end that Governor Bush would declare eminent domain. However, we had presented that option to Governor Bush earlier in our efforts, with a strong precedent in North Carolina, and I knew Governor Bush would not invoke eminent domain. So we had to look for other backers. Richard Kessler had a great vision that went even beyond our dreams. But TPL said he came into the picture too late and employees had been frightened to believe Larry Maxwell would bulldoze if the State did not select Kent.
As a side note, we actually did the former owners a great favor. We learned they offered to sell the entire Park for $14,500,000 before the closing and that included their
broker's fee. After we brought so much national attention to the situation, the owners realized they could get a much higher price for the property. David offered to
purchase the park in June 2003 to prevent the deterioration that was being allowed by the owners while the State process took place. He felt he could work out a lease when the
process was completed. But the then primary owner said, "I do not care about this Park. I do not care about these people. This is my price. Either pay it or this meeting is
over!" His price was many millions more than the State or County appraisals.
That meeting was over.
Getting back to your question, there are many of our original ideas I would like to see happen at Cypress Gardens! I will list just a few in no particular order of importance.
* Create a museum to honor Dick and Julie Pope and tell the story of all the wonderful things that have happened at Cypress Gardens. Mr. Pope was brilliant about photographing and keeping records. The archives of slides, photographs, tapes, etc. were massive when Charlie Dunn did three cover stories on the Gardens over the years. So many celebrities, beloved skiers, and events could inspire athletes, people going into marketing or tourism, as well as people in general who would visit the museum.
*We are thrilled Kent has honored our wishes and kept the water ski show. We would like to see him hire at least one more female skier and return the historic pyramid. I am still getting letters about this!
* Pursue getting water skiing added to the Olympics.
* Seek to return the World Championship events to Cypress Gardens. This would be exposure on the Wide World of Sports, etc.
*Offer school camps in the summer time, which would include ski lessons. Boat and water safety could also be offered. This would be a great partnership with area hotels and increase the interest and knowledge about water-skiing.
*Continue the Junior Belles programs. One New England grandmother I met said the happiest day of her life was when her two granddaughters were little Belles at the Gardens. One child had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They connected with the "Make a Wish Foundation" and the little girl's last wish was to be a Belle at the Gardens. The grandmother's eyes filled with tears as she shared the story. We need more positive role models and places where little children can pretend and dream. One of my favorite Belles, Emma Baumann, started going to the Park at age 5 and dreamed of being Scarlet O'Hara or a Belle at Cypress Gardens. One of those dreams came true.
*Sell the antebellum gowns and accessories in the gift shops. Disney is brilliant to sell their character costumes and they fly off the shelves. They have added massive square footage in their retail areas because of the success of costume sales. Many guests in the past at CG have wanted to buy these items for their children or grandchildren and had to special order them. It would be wonderful to have them available while guests are at the Park.
*I would personally like to see Miss America and ALL the state contestants visit the Gardens as an annual tradition! Mr. Pope, Sr. loved beauty queens and knew their marketing value. During the summer of 2003 and 2004 I met with Miss America representatives in Orlando initially about doing their pageant at CG. They indeed fell in love with central Florida and as a result are holding their first annual Miss America Outstanding Teen Pageant in Orlando in August of this year. I have called Kent and we are discussing having all the young women visit CG for a day. I would like to see all of them in antebellum gowns being photographed at the famous historical sites, have an old fashioned picnic on the grounds, and have autograph sessions for the guests. Won't this be a fabulous tradition to start!?! It would mean publicity in each of the contestant's states, visits by each of their entourages, plus massive publicity for Miss America and for Cypress Gardens!
* One of our goals was to make CG the number one field trip destination spot in the State of Florida! We would love to see back-stage educational guided horticultural tours with friendly and knowledgeable hosts and hostesses for groups, college students, and school field trips. After all, this is one of the most famous Gardens in the world.
*We would love to see created a children's educational horticultural hands-on garden which could be co-sponsored by a large company such as Home Depot, Lowe's, etc. Each year this is the most popular attraction at Epcot's annual Home and Garden show... CG could make it year round. This would provide interactive experiences for the children rather than just a visual experience. Children learn by DOING! And isn't it great when they are having so much fun, they don't even realize they are learning!!! The beautiful Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, partnered with Lowe's and the national Lowe's ads bring fabulous exposure for the Biltmore House in magazines and television commercials. CG could be inspiring talented future landscape architects, horticulturalists, marketing talent, etc.
*We would like to see them inviting shows such as the ones on the Discovery and House and Gardens networks to visit the Gardens. They, along with the Food Channel, are the fastest three growing networks on television. Perhaps one of them could create a regular show for a horticulturalist that would air regularly!!! They should offer incentives for television commercials, television shows, documentaries, feature films, gardening shows, cooking shows, etc. The bottom line of this is the amount of advertising and exposure it would generate.
*Offer special events for every holiday with massive advertising.
*Add a fabulous Antiques Shoppe with wrapping and shipping available.
*** Offer complete wedding packages and make Cypress Gardens one of the most sought after wedding destinations in the world! Even when the economy goes down, people still have and spend fortunes on weddings. Mr. Pope designed Cypress Gardens to provide fabulous photos and it has always been a perfect place for beautiful weddings. Disney has over 2,000 weddings per year at Grand Floridian and over 50% of their weddings are from outside America. There is a huge market for this if it is advertised. The former owners of Cypress Gardens were doing 300 weddings per year with no marketing... this could be fabulous when promoted!!! There could be a one stop wedding planning center with professionals to help couples understand and plan everything they will need... with the items there to select and purchase. Everything needed could be offered from invitations, to favors for the wedding and reception, an in-house florist, a specialty chef, a carriage to take the bride and groom to and from the various functions, bridesmaids and grooms gifts, etc., etc. A CG Wedding Center could take away any worries the bride and groom might have and help make their wedding the most special day of their lives.
*Create a State Cypress Gardens license plate with a Belle that says something like "Visit Beautiful Cypress Gardens". This would not only pay for the Park, but would be a continuing source of income and a constant advertisement on cars as they travel throughout the state and nation. Tags sell for $20. Specialty tags sell for $35 with the extra $15 dollars going to the organization sponsoring the tag. We raised a ton of money with our State arts tag. It has a proven track record:
Challenger: $38,289,188 after nine years
Protect the Panther Tag: $35,902,402 earned after nine years
FSU Tag : $19,060,240 earned after nine years
University of Florida Tag : $21,884,270 earned after nine years.
Cypress Gardens: With the thousands who care and our passionate support, CG could break records!
*Establish a Converntion Department. The purpose would be to encourage national and international conventions to choose Cypress Gardens as their meeting place. Encourage businesses, Garden Clubs, Red Hat Society ladies, churches, and ladies clubs everywhere to hold special events, classes, or conventions there.
*Landscape the existing parking area to hide automobiles from Cypress Gardens Boulevard and beautify the first impression made of the Park. The employees parking is the first thing you see when you drive up and that is not a good first impression. There are numerous ways to camouflage this with landscaping.
*Allow Espen Tanberg to return with the Southern Breezes paddlewheel boat. I get a great deal of mail from people who miss this dinner cruise and the tour through the Lakes and Canal.
*Place seating in the concert area so seniors will not have to carry their own chairs. Our vision also included a concert series, but we did not plan to make our senior citizens carry their own seats. Kent can still keep a huge reserved area to sell. He could perhaps even have folding chairs to rent.
* Sunday morning services at the stadium for tourists and locals looking for a place to worship each week. "Day of Discovery" formerly broadcast from there before the former owners lost the contract. There can be visiting pastors, church choirs, musicians, etc. booked to speak and perform each week. The stadiums are already in place to use. Churches across the nation will look forward to a cherished opportunity to lead the service at Cypress Gardens. And this will bring new visitors with their family and friends from around the country. This could be beyond wonderful and lives could be touched in an eternal way! Perhaps a national ministry could be enticed to return to broadcast from the Gardens as Day of Discovery did for many years.
Interview with Burma Continued