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A Garden of Memories Dies

May 03, 2003

It was frozen there in time and memory, a splendid bouquet with colorful petals. But now Cypress Gardens is gone, an old theme park that just couldn't survive in a post-9/11 world.

Cypress Gardens was a 200-acre chunk of Florida swamp bought by an Iowa native smitten by Southern sunshine nearly 70 years ago. Like many winter-weary Northerners, Dick Pope loved the idea of a wet, wild winter haven. He sculpted twisting, mysterious canals lined by lush tropical plants, trees and beautiful belles who strolled beneath pastel parasols in frilly hooped gowns to make pleasant conversation and photographs.

For years before TV brought everything into family rooms, including real-time war, Cypress Gardens was a tame, pre-IMAX paradise. During a welcome pause from long miles in southbound cars, every hour or two brought another show to the beach. Appreciative families applauded the waterborne acrobatics of water-skiing men and women in fast-moving pyramids of brilliant colors and balance.

It was exciting stuff -- for another time. And therein lies one more marker of the many changes that sweep and creep through American audiences as years pass.

Disney World and Universal Studios came in nearby. As did ubiquitous special-effects entertainments that seem to show the loud, flame-filled destruction of humans, planes and cars. There was a time, believe it or not, when families could picnic -- LIVE! -- on warm Cypress Gardens sands and marvel together at 12 people standing atop each other on but six pairs of water skis doing tricks behind one speedboat. No explosions and flames. No wrenching rides. Or visitors could drift in small boats past banks of exotic flowers along languid canals where fake monsters did not rise to roar.

No more. Like much of the travel industry, Cypress Gardens was stricken by changing family travel patterns and tastes and then, in fatal financial terms, by the seismic travel shocks of 9/11. Park operators said they lost millions recently. Too many other more dramatic, more exciting and more real things to watch, it seems.

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