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Robert Trigaux

'New' Cypress Gardens to open amid recession



Cypressgardenstedmclaren Wake up and good morning. It's resurrection time, again, for Cypress Gardens, the old-time Florida theme park that's had an extraordinary run of bad luck in recent years, from financial to natural disasters. (Photo by Ted McLaren, St. Petersburg Times.)

The (latest) owners of Cypress Gardens are moving forward with plans to open in late March with a new management team and may make an announcement this week. After purchasing Cypress Gardens in September 2007, park owners Brian Philpot and Rob Harper hired Orlando-based Baker Leisure Group to manage the park. Theme park spokesman Rick Dantzler -- a former legislator and son-in-law of Dick Pope, who carved Florida's first theme park out of a thick cypress swamp in 1936 -- told the Winter Haven News Chief that Baker Leisure hasn't been affiliated with the attraction since the beginning of last summer.

Philpot and Harper closed Cypress Gardens in November for renovation and promised a back-to-basics park, emphasizing the park's extensive gardens, southern belles and water ski shows, when it reopens next month.

Will it work? That means the revised Cypress Gardens will open its doors amid the worst recession in Florida in at least a generation. Consumer spending is way down and gas prices are starting to rise again and will pass the $2-a-gallon mark in the state, on average, in a matter of days. Even theme park powerhouse Walt Disney Co. is taking its lumps. Rough timing.

You may recall Georgia theme park entrepreneur Kent Buescher's purchase of struggling Cypress Gardens years ago. His attempts to revitalize it with amusement park rides was destroyed when  Hurricanes Charley, Jeanne and Francis in 2004 left the once-lush Winter Haven park a leafless, swamped construction site. Insurers would only pay $6.9-million in claims, a fraction of the damage. That was the end of the Buescher era. Read more details of what happened.

Philpot and Harper, partners in Mulberry-based Land South Holdings, would purchase Cypress Gardens for $16.8 million out of bankruptcy and are now trying their own strategy of revitalization. Their company, Land South Holdings LLC, is a real estate investment company specializing in large land acquisitions in the southeastern United States. Since its inception in 2003, the company says it has acquired several hundred thousand acres in the southern states comprising timberland, residential land, commercial properties and agricultural land.

One of Buescher's mainstays at Cypress Gardens was to purchase and rebuild the old Starliner wooden rollercoaster from a site in Panama City. Well, the Starliner is back on the For Sale circuit -- check it out here -- along with a bunch of other rides from the Buescher days.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:23am]


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