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  1. Florida

Let’s revisit Florida’s bizarre lost theme parks from before the Disney era

How did the Sunshine State use to attract tourists? Circus animals, water ski shows and a half-mile replica of the Great Wall of China.
Published Mar. 18
Updated Mar. 18

Before a certain mouse took over Orlando, Florida was already home to a slew of delightfully bizarre tourist attractions. You could meet menacing pirates and hoop skirt-clad Southern Belles. Or visit the circus every day. Or watch an 80-year-old man break a world record as he waterskied barefoot in a banana-yellow jumpsuit.

While we can still relish living in a state that’s home to a number of ever-expanding theme parks, there’s a lot of fun to be had looking back at the abandoned tourist traps of Florida’s past. Here are some of the most memorable.

Cypress Gardens

A vintage post card touts Cypress Gardens as "America's Tropical Wonderland." [Times file]

Cypress Gardens, Florida’s first theme park, opened in January 1936 in Winter Haven.

Park founder Dick Pope cleared away swampland to create his tropical garden attraction. According to the Historical Traveler’s Guide to Florida, Pope was called the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maestro of the Muck."

Cypress Gardens started as a showcase for the beautiful plants of tropical Florida. Pope was a marketing mastermind, sending footage of the park to news outlets to lure Americans freezing in the north.

His more elaborate promotional materials drew the attention of World War II troops stationed nearby. They had seen magazine pages filled with photographs of water skiers at Cypress Gardens, and were curious to experience it firsthand.

The park didn’t actually have water skiers. But rather than turn the troops away, Pope added the performances to Cypress Gardens. The park became known as the “water ski capitol of the world,” and over 50 world records related to the sport were broken there.

The Aquamaids ski along at Cypress Gardens. Times (1968)

Perhaps the most famous water skier at the park was “Banana George” Blair, who started with the sport at Cypress Gardens at age 40 and continued until he was 92. Blair was known for his trademark color yellow, which he wore at all times.

The Popes continued to expand Cypress Gardens’ attractions as the years went by. After freezes damaged the plants, Dick’s wife Julie added the Southern Belles, charming ladies who carried parasols and wore hoop skirts. To keep locals interested, Cypress Gardens ran beauty pageants each week. The park was also used as a filming location for dozens of motion pictures.

Cypress Gardens Belles Katie Campbell, in red, and Lisa Torres get ready for duty in their distinctive costumes. Times (1999)

According to Expedition Extinct, the park attracted celebrities including Elvis, Muhammed Ali and John F. Kennedy. In 1963, Cypress Gardens was tied with the Grand Canyon as the top tourist destination in the country.

Cypress Gardens’ success didn’t last forever. The post-9/11 tourism decline, plus changing traffic patterns and the rise of Disney, caused it to close in 2003. It was acquired by Adventure Park and reopened in 2004 with new rides as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. The Splash Islands Water Park opened adjacent to the park in 2005. Adventure Parks Group filed for bankruptcy in 2006, blaming its financial woes on the damage Cypress Gardens suffered during the 2004 hurricanes.

Cypress Gardens had one other run in March 2009. This version featured an expanded water park, but the theme park closed by September.

The original botanical gardens portion of the park was preserved and is now a part of Legoland. You may not see any Southern Belles, but you can look up at the Banyan tree that was planted back in 1939 and imagine what it must have been like to be there back in the day.

Update: We originally reported that the preserved Cypress Gardens portion of Legoland doesn’t have water skiing, but reader Eddy Twyford wrote in to let us know that there are live water skiing shows at Legoland every day. “Also the former skiers from Cypress Gardens started the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Show Team a few years back and perform the third Saturday of every month in downtown Winter Haven at MLK Park on Lake Silver," Twyford wrote. "The shows are free so stop on by!”

Blending old and new, Legoland Florida celebrated the Cypress Gardens heritage with a ribbon-cutting ceremony to re-open the Florida Pool and Oriental Gardens. [Legoland, 2014]

Six Gun Territory

Daily shootouts were held at Six Gun Territory. The attraction was built around a western town of the 1880s reproduced authentically. Visitors were transported by cable cars and an old steam train. [Times file]

Six Gun Territory transported tourists to the Wild West, complete with saloon girls, stunts on horseback and gun fights.

Ronald Braxton Coburn founded the park in Silver Springs in the early ’60s. He had already achieved success in North Carolina with his western-themed park, the “Ghost Town in the Sky.”

Dancers perform at Six Gun Territory in 1963. [Times file]

Six Gun Territory officially opened to the public in 1963. There was a sky lift ride, but otherwise the original park was not focused on rides. Instead, visitors marveled at girls dancing the can-can and cowboys having shootouts in the streets. Guests could also purchase the Pony Express experience and have a post card delivered to the Silver Springs Post Office by horseback.

During the 1960s, actors at Six Gun Territory staged elaborate performances, including daily shootouts. [Times file]

Stars from television westerns, such as Bonanza, even made special appearances at the park.

“The park capitalized on the popular cowboy television show themes of the 1950s and 1960s, but the opening of Walt Disney World was the beginning of the end for Six Gun,” said Floyd Clark, who owned a nearby dude ranch, in a 2015 interview with the Ocala Star Banner.

Costumes and shootouts were regular occurrences at the Six Gun Territory attraction. Times (1964)

The park was sold to National Service Industries in 1970. The new owners brought in amusement rides. The park finally closed in the early 1980s.

In 2015, former employees held a reunion. It was Wild West-themed.

Splendid China

Visitors view a replica of the Great Wall of China at Splendid China on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2003. The park closed the next day. [Peter Cosgrove | AP Photo]

Splendid China was supposed to be the ultimate bait to draw American tourists to China. The Central Florida park featured acrobats, Mongolian wrestlers and a half-mile replica of the Great Wall of China. Yet despite the fanfare, the park suffered the whole 10 years it was in business.

The American Splendid China location opened in 1993, much later than the other parks on this list. It was located just a few miles away from Disney World. According to Expedition Extinct, the park was founded after Taiwanese immigrants Frank and Josephine Chen visited Central Florida. The Chens wanted to open a park similar to one that they had seen in China a few years before that, and negotiated a deal with China Travel Service to supply the land for a version in America.

It took two years and $100 million to build the park. Expedition Extinct reported that male Chinese workers were sent to build the park, and that two chefs came to help reduce the homesickness that the laborers felt.

Dancers with the Szechuan Folk Dance Ensemble perform at Splendid China. Times (1997)

The goal was to encourage Americans to visit China by exposing them to the country’s history. The park had no rides, but visitors could marvel at over 60 miniature replicas of China’s most famous destinations, like the Leshan Buddha and the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’an.

The park was the center of controversy from day one. Activists came to picket regularly, protesting a number of issues.

Protesters gather outside Splendid China in Kissimmee on Saturday, March 13, 1999. The protesters opposed the use of exhibits from Tibet, Eastern Turkestan, and Mongolia at the 76-acre theme park. [Mike Schneider | AP photo]

China’s original version was extremely successful. But Florida’s Splendid China struggled to stand out among other attractions in Orlando. It was founded with the goal to delight Americans with an educational experience, but only a mere 400 tourists came during peak days.

Robert Lamb of Orlando trims the grass around The Temple of Heaven display. This was typical of what the ratio size was on most of the exhibits. [Times file]

By the time the park closed on Dec. 31, 2003, employee morale was so low that the attractions were worn down and falling apart. Many items from the park were stolen after it closed, and the rest of the replicas were auctioned off. A Margaritaville resort will soon sit on the land that Splendid China used to occupy.

Lakeland auctioneer Randy Kincaid auctioned off the park and its furnishings starting after it closed. Times (2004)

Pirates World

This photo was taken at Pirates World in 1968. [Times file]

Located in Dania, Fla., Pirates World was a buccaneer-themed amusement park.

Though Pirates World offered the standard theme park rides, it was best known for hosting concerts. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Chicago and Deep Purple all performed at the stadium next to the park.

The most popular of Pirates World's 15 thrillers was the Log Flume from the New York's World's Fair, a splashing trip down an old mill chute. [Times file]

During the ’70s, the shows were often the backdrop for chaotic melees and conflicts between youths and the police.

Like the other parks of that era, Pirate World was no match for Disney World. The park went bankrupt by 1975 and was demolished in 1976. The land was used to build a residential community.

Circus World

Youngsters visiting Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World enjoy the children's play area. Times (1979)

Inspired by the opening of Walt Disney World, Circus World boasted an assortment of theme park rides and coasters. But the park’s specialty was its circus performances that featured live elephants and lions.

The "wondrous and magnificent snake lady" defied, confused and charmed a "deadly serpent" at the sideshow circus. Times (1981)

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World theme park opened in 1974. The park’s execution was a shadow of its initial $60 million design. According to Expedition Theme Park, Circus World’s original plan included elaborate details such as a 19-story hotel shaped like an elephant.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus World, a 750-acre thriving city of circus in motion, featured amphitheaters, rides, restaurants and shops. [Times file]

The park included a movie theater and a clown college. It also served as the winter location for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

But Magic Kingdom was just 12 miles away, and Circus World was no match for the competition. The park wasn’t as popular as Sea World, and attendance only worsened with the opening of Epcot.

The park was sold to developer Jim Monaghan in 1982. He added more rides and nicknamed the park Thrill City USA. His additions didn’t help, and the park was sold to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, a company that purchased other parks including Sea World and Cypress Gardens.

Circus World closed and was replaced with Boardwalk and Baseball. [Times file]

The new owners transformed the park into Boardwalk and Baseball. The new attraction was part theme park, part spring training destination. It housed the Kansas City Royals for 15 years.

Boardwalk and Baseball lasted just a few years before the park was sold to Busch entertainment. The Royals contract was not renewed when it expired in 2012. The area is now home to strip malls and retail fronts.

Aquatarium

The amusement park next to St. Pete Beach's Aquatarium in 1969. [Times file]

Sea lions, porpoises and dolphins with names like Floppy and Stormy all called the Aquatarium home. The animals were the highlight of St. Pete Beach’s biggest attraction.

The beachfront theme park opened in 1964 and was located between 64th and 66th Avenues, right in front of the Gulf of Mexico.

Animals performed at the Aquatarium. Times (1967)

The animals showed off for captive audiences inside the Golden Dome Arena, a “160-foot-tall golden geodesic dome.” Visitors could watch feedings in underwater tanks. There were also birds and other wild animals at Zoological Gardens.

The Golden Dome Arena, left, was a a “160-foot-tall golden geodesic dome" where animals performed at the Aquatarium. [Times file]

Hotel owner Frank Cannova purchased the attraction for $2 million in 1968. But like other tourism attractions in the 1970s, the Aquarium struggled after the opening of Disney World. There were also gasoline shortages in 1970s that caused a dip in attendance.

Bruce and Little Mike meet Toby the sea lion at the Aquatarium. [Times file]

Cannova rebranded the park as Shark World in 1976. But it wasn’t enough to keep the attraction going. After city zoning officials put their foot down on the construction of a “Zoom Floom” water slide, Shark World closed in 1977. It was replaced by the Silver Sands Beach & Racquet Club condominiums. The sea lions and dolphins went to Miami’s Sea Aquarium, while the big cats went to a Texas Zoo.

Times file.

These are just a handful of Florida’s bizarre tourist attractions. What other theme parks from the past do you miss? Let us know in the comments below.

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. This report was also compiled using Times archives.

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