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I-4's Effect on Tourism: A Case Study of Cypress Gardens

Oct 4, 2010 | WMFE - I-4 was completed in 1965, connecting I-75 and I-95, and forever changing tourism for the region in between. For one thing, I-4 bypassed the world-famous Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, the most popular attraction of the time. I-4 had a major impact on Cypress Gardens, suddenly transforming the park's location from "right off the main highway" to "way off the beaten path."

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Vintage Cypress Gardens postcard

Top: Julie Pope-Dantzler, granddaughter of Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope, and Florida historian Lu Vickers share memories and stories of the Gardens. Bottom: A vintage Cypress Gardens postcard features Southern Belles and blooms.

Before I-4 was a glimmer in an urban planner’s eye, Cypress Gardens was one of the most popular theme parks in the country. The park gained national attention as a lush tropical setting for movies and other broadcasts.

Cypress Gardens opened in 1936, the brainchild of Polk County entrepreneur Dick Pope. His granddaughter, Julie Pope-Dantzler, still lives in Winter Haven, just a stone’s throw from the park’s site. She spent the 1960s and 70s growing up in the park. She says her favorite place was the iconic botanical garden at its heart.

“It had a real mysterious, like you were going into a totally different world kind of feel,” Pope-Dantzler explains. “It was the dampness like a jungle, it was the smell, it was the paths – they weren’t perfect. They were just rough, and it just always felt like you never knew what was going to happen.”

As a teen, Pope-Dantzler worked as one of Cypress Gardens’ famed “Southern Belles,” posing for tourists’ photos in an enormous pastel hoop skirt. 

“I remember the first few nights after a long day at work,” she says. “I worked on the weekends. I would get in bed at night and just see flashbulbs.”

A big part of the park’s success was its location. It was right off the main highway of the time, US 27. Florida Historian Lu Vickers has just written a new book about Cypress Gardens. It’s titled Cypress Gardens, America’s Tropical Wonderland: How Dick Pope Invented Florida.

“US-27 was the main way people got to Florida,” says Vickers. “There were also studies done too around that time, determining that 80 percent of the tourists that came into the state came in their cars, and a lot of them went straight to Cypress Gardens. And then, what happened was…the interstate was built.”

Originally, “Interstate 4” was supposed to bypass Winter Haven, with no exit onto US 27. Vickers says Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope saw the writing on the wall.

“He kind of freaked out,” she says. “In one article I read, he told the reporter that he printed up pamphlets saying, ‘We only have two years to live.’ If this interstate went through without an exchange, he felt like it would really kill the Gardens.”

So, Pope lobbied for and won that exchange onto US 27 for easier access to the park. But Julie Pope-Dantzler says it wasn’t much help.

“There had been this thinking that, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ she says. “And they began to notice that attendance was dropping.”

Part of the problem was that Cypress Gardens was about a 30-minute drive from I-4. Suddenly, that was too far off the beaten path. The country’s new interstates brought convenience to travel, and tourists began to favor a quick drive to one “destination” that had everything. A “destination” like the brand-new Walt Disney World theme park, built right off I-4.

“The magnitude of what was coming, I think it probably was a little bit like maybe New Orleans possibly not knowing that Katrina was going to be as big as it was,” says Pope-Dantzler. “We didn’t know.”

Pope-Dantzler says her grandfather always promoted the other attractions in the area at the time, and so did her father, Dick Pope Jr., when he took over the park. The Popes thought Disney’s crowds would also visit Cypress Gardens, but with Disney’s on-site resorts and shops, tourists had little reason to leave. Her family tried to compete, but the interstate and the “destination vacation” had changed the game. The Popes had to sell the park in 1985.

After that, a struggling Cypress Gardens changed hands a half-dozen times until it closed for good in 2009.

But its story isn’t over.

At the park’s old front gates, a huge, yellow backhoe rumbles through the dust and the sound of a jackhammer punctures the air. Cypress Gardens is becoming the world’s fifth Legoland theme park. Legoland Florida will be the largest of all five, boasting over fifty rides, shows, and attractions.

Legoland rep Jackie Wallace says the new park will succeed where the Gardens didn’t because the brand-name Lego is known all over the world.

“When you say ‘Lego,’ people know what you’re talking about,” explains Wallace. “And when you say ‘Legoland,’ the enthusiasm is already there for us.”

And Legoland is already thinking about ways to tackle the challenge of the park’s remote location. For one thing, they’ll be running shuttles from tourist-heavy areas in Orlando and Tampa.

Wallace says the new park will be keeping some Cypress Gardens traditions.

“We’ll still have the botanical gardens which everyone knows and loves.”

But, she adds, “We’ll put a little tiny Lego twist to them.”

Julie Pope-Dantzler is pleased at the prospects Legoland will bring to Polk County, but for her, the new park itself is bittersweet. “It can never be what it was, but maybe it can be something better for the next generation,” she says.

But she’s happy that, in a way, she can still share the experience that meant so much to her growing up. “What a great thing, that a whole new generation of high school kids can go down there and have the same kind of enthusiastic experience that they had 4 generations ago.”

Legoland Florida is slated to open next fall. It’s still about a 30-minute drive from the interstate.


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