I visited Cypress Gardens on 22 July 2008. I was on a solo road-trip at the front-end of my three week vacation, and Cypress Gardens was somewhere I had always wanted to see. Everyone has seen the postcards and Go-Go's covers of the famous water-ski shows, and certainly I wanted to watc that, but also I enjoy the feel of these independant parks that date from a different era of American popular history. (Of course I also just enjoy roller coasters and other rides as well, as long as they don't spin on too many axes at once..)
In the event, it was lucky for me that I finally chose 2008 as the year to do it, as just over a year later the park closed down. For reasons I can no longer remember, I left my digital camera in the car, and ended up buying a crummy disposable camera at one of the park gift shops to take these pix.
I wasn't really sure what, besides the skiers, to expect at Cypress Gardens, and I was somewhat put off balance by how hard it was to get there. I had, I believe, spent the previous day at Weeki Wachee, and ended up driving to WInterhaven quite late at night/early in the morning. There was no Interstate, and I felt myself on the verge of getting lost several times despite having printed Mapquest directions. In the end, I made it to my hotel OK, and found the park the next day with no trouble.
The entrance to the park led into sort of a long shop-lined promenade which headed off to the interior, and in one of those storefronts, I found the first surprising thing about Cypress Gardens. I suppose the building may have been a "real" concession at one time, but it was now a radio museum, and was full of wonderful old radios, dating back to the first sets, moving into the vacuum-tube era and console radios all the way into the early transistor age. There was also a video presentation playing on the life of the park's founder. It was a great collection, and, apart from that video, had absoutely nothing to do with Florida, Cypress Gardens or any of the park's themes (Southern Belles, Water Skiing etc) from over the years. It was there simply because someone wanted to display his radio collection, and there was no consultant to tell him not to do it. It was extremely casual -- there was no attendant (and I was the only person in the museum at all), and the sets were simply sitting on top of display cases. Had I wanted to, I could have walked out through the open doors with some of the smaller exhibits under my arm with no problem.
At the end of the promenade, I got my second surpise about Cypress Gardens -- It was actually, um, gardens. (Unlike, say, Busch Gardens). The promenade terminated at the entrance to a fantastic topiary garden. There were shrubs trained into all sorts of interesting (and pleasing) shapes, and it was just a great place to walk around. (This was high summer in Florida, and the park was not at all crowded).
Past the topiary garden was the water-ski pavilion. There was some question whether there would be a show, as a thunderstorm was in the offing, and if it came to fruition would pull everybody off the water. My memory is hazy, but I believe they did two shows a day, and the first one went on and the second one was cancelled. The show had something of a vaudeville aspect as the stage cast did pratfalls and good natured shtick while the skiers did their famous pyramids and trick skiing. (Sometimes the stage cast woud "unexpectedly" end up on skis). I felt they calibrated the hokiness just about exactly right such that you felt they were sincerely trying to entertain, but also sincerely enjoying it.
Down past the ski area was a lake tour boat (not running that day) dock and another set of gardens. For me the centerpiece of this garden area was a truly majestic Banyan tree planted by the park's founder 50 or more years ago. It was the first one I had seen in person, and is rather hard to describe except that it is as if one tree decides to make a whole forest. Unfortunately, the tree was so large and my camera so poor, that I didn't really get any good pictures of it.
Away from all the gardens was the amusement area. As I intimated above, I can't ride really disorenting rides anymore (used to love them..) but I still enjoy bumper cars, roller coasters, log flumes and the like. The park had a very nice intermediate wooden roller coaster, something like Myrtle Beach's Swamp Fox but considerably larger. As there was no crowd that day, the ride operators were letting riders stay on as long as they liked, simply putting new riders in empty seats rather than disembarking the existing seats. I must have made 20 straight passes around the track, finally getting off as my spine was starting to feel rather abused.
From there, I went to the log-flume equivalent -- I beieve it was inner-tube themed. I ended up in a tube with a family from France who spoke very little English, and my high-school and college French for anything past Bounjour, Je m'apelle Ted totally flew my mind, but it was a nice ride. At one point my straw hat blew off and into the drink and one of the French kids retrieved it. (I still have it -- apart from smelling like a hay-field while it dried out it seems unhurt).
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and capped the evening at a local independant pizza joint on my way out of town. I was looking forward to going back some day, and was surprised and disapointed a few years later when I mentioned the prospect to my sister, and she informed me the park had shut down.