Cypress and Sunken Gardens
Cypress Gardens Adventure Park
Cypress Gardens first entered my life in the form of a pair of Dick Pope water-skis that my siblings and I wore out hot dogging on the Tennessee River. As I wander into the recently revamped Florida theme park, I am pleased to discover that the revived Winter Garden Park still offers the inspiration for my childhood stunts.
Since the park had been closed for more than a year and had changed owners, I was leery of changes to the park famous for it’s lush gardens, trick skiers and hoop-skirt maidens. But as I checked out the park’s new thrill ride additions, I was soon put at ease.
I am surprised to find so many rides, more than three dozen in all, comfortably compact, away from the waterfront, topiary garden and winding pathways. Many of the rides are highly embellished versions of rides you might see at the state fair – scrambler, Ferris wheel, Tilt-O-Whirl, bumper cars. But there are also four roller coasters and a doozie of a water ride (more on that later).
The Triple Hurricane, appropriately named after three hurricanes delayed the park’s re-opening, is an old-fashioned wood-framed coaster. I can hear the tat-tat-tat of the coaster’s wheels moving up along the rails and feel light as the car races toward the ground. Eat your heart out Magic Mountain lovers; I only wait in line five minutes to ride.
It is the Storm Surge ride that rocks my boat. I assume the danger of this rubber-raft water ride is getting drenched. I don’t expect the constant spins of the raft as it plunges down and around a big slide. Not wet, but dizzy, I stagger off for a tamer ride – the Ferris wheel. I board a round carriage with a friendly retired couple from Minnesota .
High up I can see the waterside amphitheater where people are beginning to gather, the winding pathways through the lush gardens and even a swish of bright red, yellow and blue as hoop-skirted Southern Belles scurry to their dressing room. (Which, by the way, was my second childhood fantasy to being a Cypress Gardens trick skier).
One of my fellow passengers punctures my daydream and calls me a wimp for refusing to ride the bumper cars. The park, after all, is for children of all ages.
Back on the ground it takes me less than 10 minutes to reach the amphitheater. I hear the boat motors rumbling and see young men in wet suits and young women in bathing suits doing calisthenics on a nearby dock.
A young man starts by slalom skiing as easy as if he were walking down the street. He quickly drops his ski
and goes barefoot, a feat none of my family dared attempt. But it was the female skiers who stole the show. Atop the male skiers’ shoulders, the female skiers balanced and twirled in the air like ice skaters, graceful and confident despite the slippery surface moving rapidly beneath them. Ski pro Dick Pope would be proud.
Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg shares a lot in common with Cypress Gardens . It’s famous for its colorful flowers and tropical plants, and it also has changed ownership and undergone a transformation in recent years.
Some of the installations, like the King of Kings wax museum, the World’s Largest Gift Shop and the hot dog stand may be gone, but the new owner, the City of St. Petersburg , renovated the park’s building to its original Mediterranean-revival architecture and added an award-winning children’s exploration museum and a Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
Tropical plants and a butterfly house and garden fill space vacated by bird aviaries and alligator shows. Sunken Gardens ’ highlight, the 100-year-old tropical and subtropical garden, remains just as dazzling and relaxing to all who choose to stroll through it.
Although only four acres, the park seems much larger, and the air always feels cooler. That’s in part because the park is about six feet below the streets outside its stone walls. Originally the property was a lake, but park founder George Turner drained it to practice his favorite hobby, gardening.
Boy, did he have a green thumb. Today more than 500 species of plants fill the garden, many of which are now the oldest of their kind in the Southeast.