WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- It looks as if Cypress Gardens won't be uprooted after all.
Florida's oldest theme park -- where Elvis Presley learned how to water-ski, Esther Williams filmed "Easy to Love," and Southern belles sashayed along trails amid towering topiaries -- had sunk into obscurity during the 1990s.
After tourists stopped visiting in 2001, in part because of the poor economy and terrorism worries, and in part because it couldn't keep up with mega-parks such as Disney World, Cypress Gardens was shuttered in 2003.
Condominium developers were eager to carve up the property. Not so fast, said state officials, who were interested in protecting the iconic park from development, and entrepreneur Kent Buescher, who owns Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta, Ga., and wanted to reopen Cypress Gardens.
Eventually, the state spent $11 million to secure a conservation easement over the entire 150 acres, and Buescher spent about $50 million to restore and renovate the park. It reopened officially last week.
"This was worth saving," Buescher said.
The park is now actually two parks: a tribute to the old Cypress Gardens, complete with butterfly gardens, ornate landscaping, the water-ski show, and, of course, the belles, and the new Cypress Gardens, where guests are catapulted through the air on thrill rides such as the Okeechobee Rampage, the Power Surge, or the appropriately named Triple Hurricane.
Appropriately, because saving this park came at a steep price. Hurricanes Charlie, Jeanne, and Frances scored direct hits on the property this fall and all but destroyed it before it even opened. That added an unexpected $10 million to the restoration costs. Buescher, who put up his Georgia park as collateral for Cypress Gardens, stands to lose his entire investment, plus both parks, if he fails.
"It's a risky start-up venture," he acknowledged. "And those are tough. And the only way to make that happen was to leverage something that I had that was worth a lot of money."
But can a theme park that became obsolete a decade ago, that met an unceremonious end only a year ago, and that has had a total of six owners in two decades, make it?
Buescher thinks so.
"We're bringing back the type of things that families, particularly young families, would enjoy here," he said.
He has added 38 new attractions, including a wooden roller coaster, a giant slide, and numerous kiddie rides. He hopes this merger of old and new will make the park work.
"It just combines the best of Cypress Gardens with the best of a thrilling theme park," said Buescher.
He also acknowledges that the revived park will never be able to compete with the likes of Disney World, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens, which draw people from around the world. Instead, he wants the new park to draw Floridians. Once you meet some of the people who are patronizing the new Cypress Gardens, that makes perfect sense.
"This seems like a local park," said Mike Kusack, who was visiting his son in Lake Mary and visited the park during a trial opening last month. "A little more than a country fair, maybe?"
Maybe. The new Cypress Gardens -- the second part -- does have the feel of an amusement park. The rides are not on the same scale as the enormous ones at the mega-parks, with their often serpentine lines of ticket holders stretching in front of them.
With the exception of the roller coasters, everything appears to be built on a smaller scale. It doesn't necessarily look unplanned, but it is certainly less engineered than anything you find in Orlando. Visitors seem to like that.
Jessica Jessup, 11, of Winter Haven, said she rode the Triple Hurricane five times on a recent morning, and didn't have to stand in a single line.
"Of all the rides, it had the most drops," she said. "It's very exhilarating."
The old Cypress Gardens will still appeal to tourists who remember it from its heyday, when the stands were packed for every water-ski show, and the botanical gardens were at their peak.
"They've done a beautiful job in bringing the things back that they could bring back and replanting what they could," said Colleen Smith, of Winter Haven, who was surveying the restored gardens just before the grand opening. It wasn't the place she remembered, she was quick to add, but it was well on its way to a comeback.
Will it work? Specialists such as Abraham Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, have their doubts.
"It's not that the park is not attractive," Pizam said. "It's not that it's not beautiful."
Rather, he said, it's the realities of 21st-century tourism that make the revived Cypress Gardens a challenge. Florida visitors remain fixated on the big theme parks in Orlando and Tampa, and luring them to remote Winter Haven could prove impossible. Pizam says these out-of-state visitors are absolutely necessary for Cypress Gardens to flourish.
"Realistically, he said, "looking at it from the outside, I'm afraid that they might fail."
The fate of Buescher's investment, and of Cypress Gardens, probably won't be decided for a while. The new owner insists he and his investors, are "in it for the long haul" and want to make this park a permanent Florida attraction.
Audrey Baker, an Orlando resident who has followed the rise, fall, and return of Cypress Gardens and was visiting the new park on a recent morning, hopes Buescher will succeed.
"I think these rides and everything will hopefully pick up the attendance again," Baker said. "But if I had $50 million, I'm not sure I would invest it in a theme park."
Christopher Elliott and Kari Haugeto are freelance writers in Florida.