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Reopened Cypress Gardens' attendance exceeds expectations

Call it curiosity, reminiscence or an just unfilled need for thrill rides, but crowds have kept the turnstiles clicking at the recently reopened Cypress Gardens.

"It's been an overwhelming first month," said Alyson Gernert, spokeswoman for the Winter Haven theme park that claims to be the oldest in Florida. "We've been drawing about double what we anticipated."

Indeed, the park has drawn as many as 8,000 people and as few as 5,500 on a recent Tuesday.

Cypress Gardens drew 600,000 the park's last full year. The park's owner, Kent Buescher, needs about 1-million to break even his first year, but his business plan does not count on that many. If he can continue averaging 6,000 guests a day a year, first-year attendance would top 1.8-million.

That's less than half the number of visitors to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, but at about half the admission price. While skeptics abound about Cypress Gardens' long-term prospects, don't forget that Buescher spent about $50-million _ $32-million of it long-term debt _ sprucing up Cypress Gardens and buying 38 carnival-style rides. The grand total is about what other Florida theme parks fork out every year for one or two rides.

Whether the crowds can be sustained through the dog days of August is a question that has slipped off the agenda of Cypress Gardens officials. They have more pressing matters.

The park last week held job fairs to add 125 employees to the grand opening payroll of 320.

"We didn't think we would need more people until we added our water park in May," Gernert said. "It's a good problem to have."

_ MARK ALBRIGHT, Times staff writer

Home theater chair mixes comfort with action

At theme parks they call them simulator rides. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it went by the name D-BOX Odyssee.

Imagine a supremely comfy recliner wired through your home theater system. When the ground shakes on the movie screen, you feel it. A hard right turn in that car chase, hang on. Like the Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, the idea is to synchronize the action on a movie screen with a moveable chair.

And the chairs are coming to Florida soon.

D-BOX Technology, the Canadian maker of this new home theater gadget, has signed a deal to test market the new chairs in Florida through Sound Advice "early in 2005." The home electronics retailer, which will be renamed Tweeter in the next two years, will be among the first to carry the chairs, whose starting price will be $6,000.

The chairs use a two- or four-point suspension system that is connected to a controller that translates the action in a movie into relevant motions.

In the early days of simulator rides, back in the 1980s, their popularity dimmed somewhat while the manufacturers searched for a way to make a ride that didn't make patrons sick to their stomachs. D-BOX must be confident they've overcome that hurdle. The Odyssee is also available as a love seat.

_ DAVE GUSSOW, Times staff writer

Lawyers solicited to invest in independent film

Some Florida attorneys used to hearing pitches from potential clients in need of a good lawyer have gotten a decidedly glitzy spiel in recent months.

Strata Productions in Evanston, Ill., has been soliciting lawyers to invest in the independent film company's new movie, Heavens Fall, which stars Timothy Hutton in a story about the Scottsboro Nine in Alabama.

The case involved a group of young black men falsely accused of gang raping two white women in 1931.

For $15,000 each, investors are offered "units" in the film, which faced costly production delays when Hurricane Ivan played havoc with filming in Alabama and Tennessee.

If the film brings in revenues of $5-million, an investment of $20,000 will earn a return of $3,810, according to a prospectus. If the movie earns $30-million, investors stand to make $87,200.

The prospectus said the company has sought more than $4-million in private capitalization.

It also warns movies are unpredictable and risky. Ben Gonzales, an associate producer with Strata who has contacted at least one Tampa Bay area lawyer, declined to comment. Documents sent to investors say the movie will be released this summer.

Largo lawyer John Trevena, who said Gonzales called him in December, said he plans to send a check. He said Gonzales told him the production company is soliciting prominent lawyers in Florida and around the nation.

"It's an excellent project that deals with a very important legal case," Trevena said.

_ WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times staff writer

Ex-Buccaneer Lynch pops up in computer ads

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star players have a way of popping up after they leave Tampa.

Not just in in postseason games . . . but in pop-up ads.

Bucs fans cruising the Internet might notice ex-Buc safety John Lynch, now with the Denver Broncos, pitching on behalf of a program called Rainbow Rewards.

"I'm a member. I hope you will be too," Lynch extols in Rainbow's pop-up ad using his photo.

Rainbow Rewards is a Colorado program offering shoppers cash back from purchases made at more than 600 locally owned Denver-area merchants. Lynch pitches the charitable side of the program: For every purchase, Rainbow Rewards donates to the Children's Hospital and United Way charities and schools.

Rainbow executives did not return calls for comment. However, based on its Web site, rainbowrewards.com, the program is only in Colorado even if its ads are reaching across the country.

_ JEFF HARRINGTON, Times staff writer

Clearwater software maker goes toe-to-toe with Microsoft

A Tampa Bay area company apparently is proving to be a distraction to Microsoft Corp.'s entry into the growing market for antispyware software.

On Dec. 16, Microsoft said it had acquired New York-based Giant Company Software Inc., a maker of software that blocks spyware, programs that can lodge themselves on computers and plague users with pop-up ads, track their Web surfing habits and perform other nasty tasks. By Thursday, Microsoft had posted a test version of its newly acquired software on its Web site.

But no sooner had Microsoft announced the acquisition when it reportedly received word from Sunbelt Software Inc. of Clearwater that Sunbelt retained ownership of certain elements of Giant's technology.

That prompted Microsoft to issue a statement Dec. 17 stressing that any future products based on Giant technology "will be owned solely by Microsoft, and in no way will be co-owned by any third party." But Microsoft also conceded that a pre-existing agreement between Sunbelt and Giant required Microsoft to provide Sunbelt with updates to Giant's spyware database through July 2007.

Where things stand now is unclear. Microsoft officials wouldn't comment, and neither would Sunbelt president Alex Eckelberry.

On Dec. 17, eWeek.com quoted Eckelberry as saying Microsoft's acquisition of Giant "is fantastic news for us because we co-own the Giant code and all future definition updates. . . . We now get the benefit of the Microsoft research on antispyware to give us, bar-none, the best antispyware signature database on the market."

But three days later, an article posted on the Web site of the monthly magazine Windows IT Pro reported that Sunbelt executives "formally stated" Microsoft's ownership claims to Giant's technologies "are, in fact, correct." The article also said Sunbelt executives "say they've been "impressed' with Microsoft's professionalism in this matter."

_ LOUIS HAU, Times staff writer

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