By DOUGLAS HANKS III
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
I DON'T THINK I HAD EVER seen a hoop skirt in person, making me something of a novelty in South Florida.
It seemed like whenever I told veteran co-workers I was heading to Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla. -- the Central Florida attraction themed after a Southern plantation -- they'd say: "Oh, I used to go there when I was a little kid."
Apparently, they rarely came back, because Cypress Gardens limped along for years here as its southern belles and water-ski shows seemed ever more out of date, and in April 2003 the park shut its gates.
New owner Kent Buescher, who also has an amusement park in Georgia, paid $7 million for the park, with state and local governments adding about $14 million to the deal in order to save Cypress Gardens from being razed for a housing complex.
Buescher brought in $25 million worth of amusement park rides to try and reinvent Cypress Gardens as a place that's more exciting, more contemporary and, of course, more profitable.
So how did he do?
As someone who had never been to Cypress Gardens before, I can't speak to the burning question of whether the new one betrays its roots. But as a fresh-eyed visitor, I can say the incarnation that opened Dec. 9 at its old location seems to balance fun and serenity fairly well.
There's the lush part of the park with landscaped gardens, a butterfly house, and jumbo topiaries shaped like snails, ladybugs and swans.
A woman dressed as a statue becomes a human fountain, with streams of water squirting out of her fingers and head while opera music plays. (It's much more enchanting than it reads.)
Then there's the new section with 38 rides running the spectrum from a wooden-track roller coaster to a kiddie merry-go-round.
There's certainly enough scariness there to generate screams -- the Inverter hangs its passengers upside down five stories in the air, and the Swamp Thing lets riders shake their feet as the suspended coaster races underneath its track.
But the bulk of the rides aim for younger children. Cypress Gardens (make that Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, its new jazzed-up name) lists 24 rides in the children or family categories -- like Citrus Line Railroad, a choo-choo that snakes through the park, and the Sideswipers bumper cars and the spinning Garden Gondolas suspended from a tower.
In all, the new rides at Cypress Gardens are more county fair than Disney -- familiar offerings stationed fairly close together, without the pizazz of Space Mountain or the marketing muscle of Universal's Incredible Hulk Coaster.
That fits in with Cypress Gardens' effort to reposition itself as a more low-key (and lower cost) alternative to the Orlando mega-parks.
And one of the best parts of the well-maintained and tidy Cypress Gardens is its compact size. One main walkway serves the rides section, and about a dozen of them are clustered in a little valley, letting parents keep an eye out as their kids move from one ride to the next.
The park is small enough that older kids could be left to the rides themselves while the adults head for the more sedentary attractions. Most of the nine shops clustered around the park's main courtyard have a country-kitchen feel to them, with stops like Myrtle's Candy Company and Kringle's Christmas Shop.
From there, it's a short walk downhill to the famed water-ski show, where stunt skiers jump ramps and balance atop each other. (Buescher scrapped the signature human pyramid on skis for swelling the stunt team's payroll.)
It's a pretty fun show with a tranquil expanse of lake front as a backdrop, though I'd recommend sitting in the far grandstand, where the music and the announcer's constant patter isn't as loud.
Another low-key favorite: the Sunshine Sky Adventure, an open-air observation tower that rises 16 stories over the park on a gigantic arm and spins slowly to give a full view.
And then -- well, then that's pretty much it. A water park is supposed to open this summer, but until then it's hard to picture spending more than a day at Cypress Gardens.
Two half-days would work well, or you might combine a visit with attractions in Orlando or Busch Gardens in Tampa. Both are little more than 50 miles away.
If you're a show person, that could help pad the schedule. Performances like the Wild West Shenani-guns and Cypress Gardens on Ice are scheduled every few hours.
And of course, there are the belles -- young women in mint-colored hoop skirts who stand beaming genteel smiles throughout the park.
If I didn't know the park's backstory, the belles probably would have stumped me. Except for a white plantation-style mini-mansion tucked into the corner of a garden, there's nothing overtly southern about Cypress Gardens.
But there the belles are, posing for pictures with passersby and offering directions to the park's new attractions. There's not much risk of getting lost, of course, but I hear there's far more wandering potential at Cypress Gardens than there used to be.