The famous park that made a name for Florida before Disney. The man himself who started it all and the interesting facts behind the secrets to creating it.
Backstory and Context
Nestled in between a multitude of orange groves, lakes, and
swamps, a crown jewel in the eye the cultural of the storm that is Central
Florida found its way into the hearts of both locals, and historians alike. If
you’re from the Polk County area or Winter Haven, specifically, you’ve likely heard
of the famous gardens or the Magnolia Mansion located in Cypress Gardens on
Florida’s first commercial theme park opened in 1939, January 2, 1939 to be exact. Another interesting fact is that “Before the Disney corporation built its first Florida theme park in 1971, Cypress Gardens was the most popular tourist destination in the state. “It tied with the Grand Canyon for the number 1 attraction in the country in 1963,” Vickers says. “That’s how big it was.” (Admin., “Florida Frontier”). Cypress Gardens was a communal cornerstone from both a social and cultural standpoint. From water ski shows, to beautifully elaborate gardens and the Southern Belles that greeted you all throughout the park. This place took in a deep breath and screamed old Southern Florida. In addition to all of this, the gardens and the surrounding lakes eventually became known as the Water-Ski Capital of the world. Movies were filmed here, “celebrities such as Elvis Presley, King Hussein of Jordan, and even the king’s son came here (Admin., “Florida Frontiers”). As if that wasn’t enough to hammer in the nails of fame on this location, it was also featured specifically on the Johnny Carson Show.
As for the man who did it all Mr. Dick Pope, he had a dream larger than life and sent forth to create that vision. His experience in water skiing also took part in a very famous part about this park, the water ski shows. As for the beautiful Southern Belles, a funny story created them. According to an article interview with Dick Pope and his wife Mrs. Pope said, “There was a really hard freeze,” Vickers says. “Julie Pope (Dick Pope’s wife) was the one who came up with the idea to dress a young lady in a Southern Belle outfit and stand her outside so that people would not notice that the flame vine had pretty much been burnt by the frost.” (Admin., “Florida Frontier”). From there on the Belles were created and found at Cypress Gardens. Pope was such a mazing guy though, from his childhood life to his business career not one person didn’t enjoy his “lively personality” (Revolvy, “Dick Pope Sr.”). “In the early 1930s, his wife Julie showed him an article in Good Housekeeping about a man charging visitors money to see the manicured gardens around his mansion home” (Revolvy, “Dick Pope Sr.”). With that in mind, he created this park starting from an old nasty swamp on Lake Eloise that he cleared out to create the “Gardens” with only a 25-cent entry it was an instantaneous success. As the months and years went by the park turned into over 200 acres of land with millions of visitors at this point, Pope couldn’t believe what he had created, so he kept on adding more because you know what they say, if you put it there the people will come.
Another crazy story that brought immense success to the park was influenced by a group of soldiers, “During World War II, a group of soldiers waiting to deploy to war from Tampa, Florida saw photographs of water skiers on the lake at the park, and they mistakenly believed that water ski shows were part of the entertainment offered there. When a small group soldiers arrived at the park, ready to pay the entrance fee to watch the water ski show, Julie Pope rounded up her children, Dick Jr. and Adrienne, and their friends, and staged an impromptu water skiing exhibition. It was a success, and the next weekend, 800 more soldiers arrived to see the show. From that point on, water ski shows were a staple of the Cypress Gardens brand.” (Revolvy, “Dick Pope Sr.”). There’s so much to say about Dick Pope and this life he created for not only himself but everyone around him to enjoy.
In the 1940’s John A. Snively built the Magnolia Mansion, he created the largest citrus industry in the world and because of this, became one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. during this time period. “In the 1970s, Cypress Gardens purchased Magnolia Mansion, the New Orleans style mansion, built on Lake Eloise by citrus magnate, John A. Snively. At its height, Cypress Gardens was nationally famous.” (Revolvy, “Dick Pope Sr”.). Coincidentally, my uncle is Jack Snively, son of John Snively. I had the pleasure of speaking to him over the phone regarding his family mansion. The tone in his voice was more than enough to solidify what words could not describe when all he could get out was “this place means so much to me”. The Snively family started from nothing until John Snively generated a citrus industry that left a name on Florida. They were the wealthiest family in the United States all because of the citrus industry he created, flying in celebrities, governors, the richest of the rich hosting extravagant parties, they were the center of attention in Central Florida. The mansion was built in the mid-to late 1940’s on Lake Eloise resembling the “Tara” home from the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind”, and completely surrounded by the beautiful garden. “Childhood there was an unbelievable; that place was always alive with activity,” Snively said. (The Ledger, Calcano).The lavish mansion and celebrity visitations aren’t all the history that the gardens had to offer however. The Southern Belles that would roam the park dressed in Victorian fashion were considered to be a symbol of the civil war. Interestingly enough, this prompted men to dress up in Confederate uniforms and pose with the women. Growing up it was every girl’s dream to dress up as a southern belle. In fact, my mother did all through-out high school, and I did when I was a little girl. As time went on Cypress Gardens was purchased and renamed to Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, but after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Charlie hit, Cypress Gardens went downhill and was, eventually, bought out by LegoLand. Various internet sites offer information about the gardens. Many newspaper articles mention historical facts about the park and the Magnolia Mansion that I can provide. Additionally, I have pictures of myself going there, and I can also provide interesting photos of the beautiful gardens and the park itself.
Revolvy, LLC. “"Dick Pope Sr." on Revolvy.Com.” Trivia Quizzes, www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Dick Pope Sr.
Admin. “Florida Frontiers "Cypress Gardens".” Florida Historical Society, 30 Oct. 2014, myfloridahistory.org/frontiers/article/35
Calcano, A. (2008, June 01). Stately old Snively home at Cypress Gardens polished for weddings and other special events. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from http://www.theledger.com/article/LK/20080601/News/608098934/LL/?start=2