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Cypress Gardens to miss out on summer crowds

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WINTER HAVEN -- By the time Cypress Gardens reopens as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park with three dozen new thrill rides, kids will be back in school and the peak summer season will be over.

Owner Kent Buescher wanted to open the gates this summer. Instead, when the venerable theme park reopens in October it will have been a year and half since it last welcomed visitors.

Why the delay?

Buescher's deal to buy the park took longer than he would have liked. Also, buildings on the property were too far gone -- the worst were razed and the rest are getting new roofs. Another obstacle: Maps of utility lines buried where the foundations for roller coasters are going were incomplete. Plus finding the 13,000 cubic yards of concrete he needs has been difficult due to an international shortage.

"It's going to be extremely difficult to do all we need to do," Buescher said during a tour Monday, but he is comfortable with an October reopening.

He had hoped to gauge attendees' reaction when things were running at full tilt over the summer and use the feedback to guide him in designing the new water park he hopes to open in the spring.

"I wanted to see how my concept worked in peak time instead of at off time," said Buescher, who also owns Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta, Ga.

Now he will move into designing the new water park this fall before the rest of his vision to revitalize Cypress Gardens, which originally opened in 1936 and closed in April 2003 due to a falloff in attendance, is put to the test.

If there's an advantage to the delayed reopening of the revamped park, it's that there will be more time to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible. There will be time to work the bugs out before the big winter crowds.

Work on the site is moving from the "tear-down" phase, during which Buescher was discovering just how the bad the condition of his property was, to the building phase where steel and wooden roller coasters are beginning to take shape. By July, the pace of construction should double with 600 to 700 workers on site, Buescher said.

Having Polk County as a partner has been a huge advantage, he said. Many developers would love to have a full-time county building inspector on site to immediately make a decision. "This is government at its finest, really trying to get this park reopened," Buescher said. "We're not bogged down in process."

Though he considered trying to open part of the park earlier to catch some summer visitors, he decided it wouldn't be worth it.

"We will lose some operating income," but the impact will not be long term, Buescher said.

Some of the delays have been the result of design decisions. If the old parking area where most of the new rides are going would have been bulldozed, designers would have had an easy time working on a blank canvas.

Instead, Buescher and Hugh Darley, president of the Orlando design firm International Design and Entertainment Associates, decided to create "Adventure Grove." Long rows of mature oak trees have been left in place to shade kids as they run from ride to ride. A wooden coaster nestled among oaks dripping with Spanish moss gives a distinct feel for an amusement park.

"Trying to keep so many trees added two or three weeks to the design process," Buescher said. "We lost some precious time, but the final product is going to be worth it."

Darley, whose firm designs attractions all over the world, including work at Buescher's park in Georgia, said, "this is going to be opening a mature park, and that almost never happens."

The nature of the park's layout is intended to reflect the botanical gardens. That means trails are not necessarily the shortest distance between two points but instead meander in the shade.

"It makes the park softer, more family friendly," Darley said. "It won't feel like any of the other parks in Florida."

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I really want to go to the new park. I love tree-shrouded amusement parks. It'll be so nice. The developer is advertising Cypress Gardens in his sister-park, Wild Adventures in Valdosta. Hopefully, it'll be successful.

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Green thumb for success

Since he was a boy, Kent Buescher hasn't shied away from taking risks in the business world. Now he has taken on the challenge of putting the bloom back on Cypress Gardens.

Kent Buescher plows his golf cart through a jungle of vines, bounces over wooden foot- bridges in various states of disrepair, and pauses at the famous Florida-shaped pool, now green with algae.

His new project, the world-renowned Cypress Gardens, looks tattered and forlorn.

"What I inherited," says the park's new owner, "was a run-down place with run-down buildings and run-down everything."

Yet Buescher is what many would call a cockeyed optimist. Though some people think he's nuts for pouring millions of dollars into an old theme park off the beaten path, Buescher is a true believer.

He believes in history and in himself. He believes that if he rebuilds one of Florida's oldest attractions, tourists will come.

Now Buescher, the consummate salesman, must persuade everyone else to believe it too.

Hands-on style

With his boyishly flushed cheeks and wire-frame glasses, Buescher, 48, looks like a nice accountant. Yet he wears a cell phone on his belt and carries a large flashlight -- for poking into the dark, damp corners of his new playground. He doesn't wear a suit, preferring khaki shorts and running shoes.

Buescher (pronounced Bisher) may need those sneakers. He -- along with a construction crew of 300 -- is making a mad dash to October, when the park is set to reopen. The renovation, he says, is a five-year project squeezed into a seven-month timeline.

Behind the wheel of his golf cart, Buescher rumbles past landscapers restoring the park's enormous topiaries. He checks on construction workers scrambling to build a wooden roller coaster and discusses plans for an adjacent water park.

The theme-park business demands detail-oriented visionaries. It's a business that suits Buescher nicely. To oversee the renovation, Buescher pilots a small plane from Valdosta, Ga., to Winter Haven three days a week, zipping home to see his wife and 11-year-old daughter each night.

"This is not a management-from-afar kind of deal, where I'm here once a quarter," says Buescher.

That's not his style.

At Wild Adventures, the Valdosta theme park Buescher built from scratch, it's not uncommon to find him picking up trash, flipping burgers when lines get long or standing outside the gates saying goodnight.

So when he offered to buy into Cypress Gardens, industry observers thought he was crazy to buy a run-down park in the highly competitive Florida market. His wife thought so too.

Wild Adventures "is very time-consuming," says Dawn Buescher. "I didn't see how we could split our time with another one. But as we talked, I knew that if anybody could do it, he could."

Horse led to park

Buescher has always been driven. At age 9, he sold greeting cards to neighbors in Valdosta. By 11, he was selling Amway. But young Kent had bigger dreams than selling soap to homemakers.

One day, while reading the classified ads, he spotted a notice that a nearby Air Force base needed 55-gallon drums of industrial cleaner to clean its jets. The base wanted bids for the contract, so Buescher applied.

He won the contract -- and by age 16 was earning $1,000 a month from Amway.

When he was 18, he opened a ski and scuba school while studying at Valdosta State University. Dawn worked for him part-time while in high school.

"He's a very high-energy person," she says. "He's always trying to think of bigger and better things."

In 1981, Buescher started a printing company he named U.S. Press. By 1999, the Bueschers had sold the business to a Houston company. Dawn Buescher remains active in the company's management.

Kent Buescher attributes his success to being a quick study.

"I'd never run a printing press," he says, "but I knew I could learn."

Although most of his business decisions have been calculated moves, Buescher fell into the theme-park business.

His theme-park adventure started in 1990, when his wife wanted a horse. So he bought two. That led to a 100-acre farm for the horses. Figuring that a "farmer" needed farm animals, Buescher soon acquired an assortment of goats and chickens.

Soon, he invited school groups to visit. Before long, his accountant warned that Buescher was pouring money into a farm and earning no profit.

So Buescher regrouped. In 1996, he reopened the farm as an animal park, but that soaked him too. When he hired a carnival to set up rides for a few weeks, however, he stumbled onto a winning formula.

Attendance jumped dramatically -- so Buescher marched to an amusement convention and spent $3 million on rides.

Since then, Wild Adventures has morphed into a theme park that attracts 1.5 million visitors a year.

But that was south Georgia. Central Florida is the big leagues.

Music and family budgets

There is no handbook for those who dream of becoming theme-park magnates. But a park such as Cypress Gardens needs the vision of one man, says Dick Pope Jr., son of the park's legendary founder, Dick Pope Sr.

So far, Buescher's frank style has impressed Pope. "He's a straight shooter," says Pope. "He's a little bit like my father was. He's keeping his word, doing what he promised."

Although the world's northernmost banyan tree and a bevy of water-ski shows didn't lure tourists, Buescher thinks he can if he sticks to his plan:

Create an amusement park where visitors don't have to wait an hour to board a roller coaster. Price it reasonably, so families can afford an annual pass.

Buescher estimates a Cypress Gardens annual pass will cost about $60, which would put him in line with the Sea World or Busch Gardens Fun Pass. By contrast, Universal Studios and Walt Disney World charge from $169 to $299 for an annual pass.

Buescher also plans to bring in musical acts to keep the locals coming back. In Valdosta, 15,000 people crowded into the park recently to see Lynyrd Skynyrd. Upcoming headliners include country stars Trace Adkins and Darryl Worley, Christian pop star Michael W. Smith and comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

Though he can't outspend Disney or Universal, he's banking that many locals, particularly the nearly 500,000 residents of Polk County, will welcome a park that incorporates thrill rides, a water park and entertainment.

Add the incalculable public-relations value of stories on the park's rebirth -- from The New York Times to National Public Radio -- and Buescher thinks he has tapped into a fountain of youth for what was once the grand dame of Florida's attractions.

Not everyone is confident Buescher can revive the park. "It's going to be difficult," says Steve Baker, an Orlando theme-park consultant. "And no matter what, he's still in competition for people's time and money. There's only so much time and so much money."

If the critics are right, the bankers may be in luck -- Buescher put up his Valdosta park as collateral. "This is pure risk," he says, scanning the disheveled buildings and contemplating the $30 million he's pouring into the park. "But I like making things happen."

With that, Buescher cranks up the golf cart and roars down the sidewalk -- back to the business of building his dream.

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