Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Florida's famed Cypress Gardens and the aquamaids

(This entry is a reworking of a pair of posts that originally appeared on Relics, a now-vanished blog that was the precursor to Papergreat, in January 2010.)

Pictured above is the front cover of a pocket-sized, fold-out brochure for Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida. It is from the 1950s or 1960s. Inside, the brochure touts:
"The world famous aquamaids and champions star in four water ski shows daily. 'America's Tropical Wonderland,' a combination of beautiful girls in old fashions amid settings of tropical plants and flowers. Truly a photographer's paradise featured in movies, television, newsreels and magazine covers."
The admission rates printed on the brochure were $1.50 or $2, depending on the time of year. Children ages 12 to 16 got in for a mere 35 cents, while children under age 12 got in for free.

The aquamaids were the big attraction. They were even featured in the 1953 MGM Technicolor musical "Easy to Love", starring Esther Williams.

Williams is still with us at age 89, by the way.

Sadly, though, Cypress Gardens is not.

Despite several attempts to save it in the past decade and smart ideas from bloggers like Garland Pollard, the park's doors were closed for good in September 2009. In January 2010, Merlin Entertainments bought Cypress Gardens and announced that it would be turned into Legoland Florida, which is slated to open in October 2011.

Pictured at right is a directory of Florida attractions from the same vintage Cypress Gardens brochure. (Click on the image for a larger version that you can read.) How many of these attractions are still around? How many have been razed? And how many are just deteriorating by the side of the road, as cars race by to somewhere else?

I found an interesting 2007 Washington Post article by Susan Harb that touches on Cypress Gardens (two years before its final demise) and other vanishing roadside attractions in Florida.

Harb wrote: "More than 150 Florida roadside attractions have closed since the heyday of the 1950s and '60s. Victims of interstates that bypassed the two-lane amusements, changing tastes in entertainment and stricter government regulations, many of Florida's mom-and-pop sites are on the endangered list."

The September 11 terror attacks took a toll, too, causing some potential travelers to remain at home.

For her article, Harb revisited Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Cypress Gardens, Spongeorama in Tarpon Springs and Weeki Wachee Springs to get the pulse of those Florida attractions.

Of Cypress Gardens, she wrote: "The aquamaids no longer wear tutus and tiaras, the human pyramid on skis is only three persons high, not four, and the audience has to listen to a half-dozen endorsements before the show begins. But the Cypress Gardens skiers are still doing their signature stunts -- barefooted, backward, over ramps and with a pair of wings."

But that only lasted for another 20 months or so after Harb's visit.

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