Cypress Gardens' new lease on life

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WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Wild Adventures of Valdosta, Ga., purchased the Cypress Gardens theme park here for $7 million and plans to reopen it by Memorial Day weekend, although the company concedes the deadline might be too optimistic.

The company will invest an additional $35 million into the park over the next 18 months, according to a spokeswoman.

"[Cypress Gardens] was primarily botanical gardens, water shows and Southern belles," the spokeswoman said.

The new Cypress Gardens will incorporate some features of its new sibling, the Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta, she said, by adding rides, "which were never a huge part of Cypress Gardens before," and animals -- although the indigenous kind, not the type of wild animals found at the Georgia theme park. Music concerts and seasonal festivals also will be introduced.

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida's oldest parks, closed last April after 67 years of operation.

A Depression-era federal works project, the park had been sinking into a depression of its own since Walt Disney World opened 45 miles to the northeast in 1971, and it failed to recover from the drop in tourism after 9/11, said Cypress Gardens' former president and CEO, Bill Reynolds, who had purchased the park from Anheuser-Busch in 1995.

The decision to close the park was "mandated by our lack of funds to sustain normal operations," he said. The park had run up losses of $10 million, he added.

After a series of maneuvers by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) to save the park from being demolished and the land turned into a residential development, Kent Buescher, president and CEO of Wild Adventures, agreed to purchase the property and operate it as a theme park.

Wild Adventures purchased 120 acres of the property, and the Polk County Commission agreed to buy the 30-acre botanical garden at the core of the park for $2.5 million.

In addition, the state of Florida is purchasing an $11 million easement on the 150-acre property.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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