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Florida buys into Cypress Garden plan

Wearing hoop-skirts and yellow T-shirts, former Cypress Gardens employees cheered state officials Tuesday as they agreed to save the fabled Winter Haven attraction by putting it in the hands of a Georgia amusement park operator.

Under a deal that even Gov. Jeb Bush acknowledged "would only happen in Florida," the governor and Cabinet voted to spend $11-million from the state's environmental land-buying funds for a conservation easement on the 150-acre Polk County park. The easement severely limits the land's future development.

The vote was the final step in a complex, $20.5-million deal aimed at preserving "Florida's first theme park" while updating it to draw enough tourists to keep it open.

The Polk County Commission is spending $2.5-million to buy the 30 acres comprising the park's botanical gardens. The Trust for Public Land, a non-profit land conservation group, will carry a $7-million mortgage for the new operator, Kent Buescher, owner of Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Ga.

"It won't be exactly the same Cypress Gardens because times change and business changes," said Florida Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs. "But it is an important icon of early Florida."

Buescher's plan to convert Cypress Gardens into a modern tourist attraction has rankled some former employees and Polk County residents. More than a dozen dressed in red T-shirts showed up at the Cabinet meeting Tuesday in protest, sitting across the room from former Cypress Gardens employees wearing yellow T-shirts who supported the deal.

"Today you are being asked to contribute $11-million to destroy the essence of Cypress Gardens," said Burma Posey of Longwood, a former Cypress hostess who launched "Friends of Cypress Gardens" to keep it as is. "Gone will be the peace and tranquility."

But opponents proved no match against the proponents, which included the Polk County Commission, the city of Winter Haven, the area's Chamber of Commerce and some employees who lost their jobs when the park closed.

The 67-year-old park, shuttered in April because of dwindling attendance, could reopen for visitors as soon as Memorial Day, said Buescher, who plans to invest $35-million in the property over the next 18 months.

"I am ecstatic and pleased with the way the vote went," Buescher said. "But obviously there are now big shoes to fill."

Cypress Gardens built its following on an 8,000-species botanical garden, water ski shows and hoop-skirted Southern Belle hostesses. Buescher said he plans to augment that tradition with amusement rides, including roller coasters and a water park.

His goal: To lure young families who long ago abandoned the attraction for Busch Gardens, Disney World, SeaWorld or Universal Studios.

Buescher projects annual attendance of 1-million once the improvements are completed in about 18 months. The park will be open year-round, seven days a week. Buescher's Wild Adventures park, by comparison, is open only four days a week in the winter and draws 1.4-million visitors a year.

Once the overhaul is completed, Cypress Gardens plans to charge $34.95 for adults and $29.95 for children 3 to 11.

While the park remains off the beaten-path _ there's no easy Interstate access _ Buescher is confident of success.

Four-lane roads pass the park, he noted. "And there are 500,000 people in Polk County. That's a pretty strong local base. In Georgia, the county I'm in has 80,000 people. I have to go 60 miles to hit 500,000 people," Buescher said.

Sylvia Hitchcock Carson of Lake Wales, a former Miss Universe who often modeled at the Gardens resort during the 1970s, shuddered to think of thrill rides alongside the botanical gardens.

"There is no doubt in my mind you are going to hear screams when you're walking through the gardens," Carson said. "They're going to get the young only to lose the old who enjoy the gardens."

Buescher said Tuesday that Cypress Gardens would be more subdued than Wild Adventures, a 170-acre park with nine roller coasters.

"We'll have enough so that a 15-year-old will have plenty to do, but we're focusing on making this a family park," he said.

The final endorsement came from Dick Pope Jr., son of Cypress Gardens founder and the park's former operator.

"I've seen (Buescher) in action, and I believe he is the man who can save Cypress Gardens and make it bigger and better than it was in the past," Pope said.

Some environmentalists have complained that the state should not use environmental funds to buy a theme park. But no one raised that objection Tuesday, even as Bush and others acknowledged the plan was unusual.

"When we were writing Florida Forever (the state land-buying program) we never imagined we'd be using it for such purposes," Struhs said.

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