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Cypress Gardens: Plotting A New Course


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Winter Haven - No one can accuse the new owner of Cypress Gardens Adventure Park of being skittish about risk.

Kent Buescher is rolling the dice big, spending $50 million to revive the aging, shuttered Florida attraction that once drew more than a million visitors annually. He's hoping to make money - and save a slice of Old Florida doing it.

Hurricane Charley's recent assault on the state showed just how high the stakes are for Buescher. The storm ripped through Polk County, slamming Cypress Gardens. Buescher estimates the storm caused $3 million to $4 million in damage.

One thing is certain: It will delay the 68-year-old park's reopening, originally slated for October, until November. Buescher said winds ripped down a gazebo and destroyed 200 trees, including stately oaks.

Buescher flew from Georgia on Saturday to survey the damage. ``I was heartbroken,'' he said.

But there is good news: New rides and other construction in the park appear to have sustained only minor damage. Buescher said work on the rides will continue and lenders are committed to seeing the park open.

But no one is likely to forget the storm. Buescher probably will name one of four roller coasters ``Hurricane Charley.''

Stiff Competition

Hurricanes aside, Buescher's gamble buying the park and investing millions to revive it is loaded with other risks.

For one, 30 minutes to the northeast in Lake Buena Vista is Walt Disney World, one of the world's biggest tourist destinations, and other Orlando- area theme parks. And 55 minutes to the west is Busch Gardens amusement park in Tampa.

Theme park experts say that with competition like that, Buescher will have his work cut out for him as he tries to make Cypress Gardens a success.

``He's caught in a bad location,'' said Steve Baker, a theme park consultant based in Orlando. ``I applaud him, but it's going to be very hard.''

A Second Chance

Buescher, 48, owner of the successful Wild Adventures amusement park in Valdosta, Ga., said he is trying to come up with ideas to lure visitors and give Cypress Gardens a second chance. He said the floral displays, water-ski shows and Southern belles that made Cypress Gardens famous will remain when the attraction, renamed Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, reopens.

New attractions include 38 amusement rides, concerts, a refurbished Old Florida-style village and a water park.

``It will be an ideal place to take the family for the day,'' Buescher said.

Built in 1936, Cypress Gardens was one of Florida's premier tourist attractions, drawing 1.2 million visitors a year in its heyday in the 1960s. Walt Disney World did not emerge as the dominant attraction in Central Florida until the 1970s.

Cypress Gardens went out of business in April 2003, after a succession of owners failed to bring back the glory days. It was scheduled to become a housing development when Gov. Jeb Bush got involved and persuaded aconservation foundation, the Trust for Public Land, to temporarily buy Cypress Gardens for $20.5 million until a permanent buyer could be found.

Buescher soon emerged, agreeing to ante up an initial investment of $7 million. The state paid $11 million, and Polk County chipped in $2.5 million to pay the Trust for Public Land for the property.

Under the deal, the botanical gardens and other natural areas will remain undeveloped, but Buescher got the green light to add amusement rides and other attractions.

``This is a place where kings and queens have visited, where lots of people have been married. People have a lot of passion for this place,'' he said.

At a time when most theme parks are owned by corporations, Buescher is a lone gun. But taking risks is not new to the lifelong businessman. At 15, he was making $1,000 a week selling Amway. As an 18- year-old student at Valdosta State University, he opened a ski and scuba school. A successful printing company was next. Buescher owned the company for almost two decades, selling it in 1999.

Now, Buescher is supervising Cypress Gardens' renovation, flying his private jet every other day between Winter Haven and Valdosta, where he oversees operations at Wild Adventures, and lives with his wife and 11-year-old daughter.

His financial backers include GE Capital, the CIT Group and Regents Bank.

To get the financing, Buescher said he pledged as collateral the Wild Adventures park, which he started in 1996 as a petting zoo. School groups used to visit free of charge.

Now, Wild Adventures has an annual attendance of 1.5 million. It features 58 rides, a zoo and various entertainment shows.

Buescher said he's confident he can make Cypress Gardens a similar success.

``I obviously wouldn't spend $50 million dollars if I thought I was going to be wrong,'' he said.

But Wild Adventures is in the middle of rural south Georgia, where there are no competitors.

Baker, the theme park consultant, says people will drive for several hours to an attraction when there is no other entertainment nearby.

Family Appeal

But Cypress Gardens will have competitors and most offer attractions similar to those Buescher plans, Baker said.

He doesn't see Cypress Gardens offering anything unique. ``You have to create a reason for people to go,'' he said.

Buescher said he'll make Cypress Gardens a success by marketing it as a regional family amusement park. The business plan calls for relying on residents within about an hour's drive and charging admission fees that are more affordable than those at nearby parks.

He expects Cypress Gardens to charge a daily admission fee of about $30, with a second day free. A season pass likely will cost about $60. Visitors pay $36.95 a day at Buescher's Wild Adventures park.

By comparison, Walt Disney World charges a daily admission fee of $54.75, and Busch Gardens charges$53.95. Both parks offer discounts for season passes.

Buescher is exploring ways to get customers to spend money at the park. On a tour of the park before the hurricane, he pointed out a new parking lot surrounded by an Old Florida-style village that includes gift shops and food stands. Visitors entering or leaving the park will pass by the shopping area. In the old Cypress Gardens, the village was at the back of the park. That was the wrong place, Buescher said. He expects the new location to encourage sales.

And the addition of thrill riders should broaden the park's appeal. ``No amusement park in Central Florida will have as many rides,'' Buescher said.

Before the storm, acre after acre of deteriorating floral gardens was being replaced with new flowers.

Buescher shows off an extensive model train display that takes up the entire building, another reminder of a bygone era.

Buescher plans to keep the model train display. But it will be expanded to include old airplanes and cars. A new toy store at the exhibit will sell model trains and a craftsman will demonstrate how to assemble model train layouts.

The idea, he said, is to retain the best parts of the old Cypress Gardens, and add and update other attractions.

``Once Disney came, it changed the entire landscape,'' Buescher said. ''Disney ... introduced a new level of entertainment.''

`Slow, Steady Death'

Cypress Gardens' decline accelerated in the 1990s. Attendance fell, maintenance was deferred, attractions deteriorated. Families, which had been the park's mainstay, stopped coming, leaving only seniors. Attendance in the final years fell to about 600,000 annually.

``It was a slow, steady death,'' Buescher said.

The new Cypress Gardens, he said, will break even when it reaches a million visitors a year and earn a substantial profit when attendance hits 1.5 million a year. That goal, he estimates, will take several years to achieve.

``I'm not expecting to open the doors and have instance success,'' he said. ``You got to go out there and work and keep on working hard.

Reporter Randy Diamond can be reached at (813) 259-8144.

This story can be found at: http://www.tampatrib.com/MGBK8X5P7YD.html

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Cypress Gardens pushes back grand opening

Damage from Hurricane Jeanne has pushed back Cypress Gardens Adventure Park's grand opening to Dec. 9.

Hurricane Charley had already whipped the park with about $5 million in damage and pushed the tentative opening back from mid-October, but Jeanne piled on damage to the boat slips and docks, as well as the village area, said spokeswoman Alyson Gernert.

There will be a soft opening Nov. 19 and the park will be open Friday through Sunday every weekend until the grand opening. Visitors will be able to access the rides, botanical gardens and craft village, but the nature and arcade areas will be closed. A Nov. 26 holiday concert with Kenny Rogers and Friends will still be held.

Owner Kent Buescher bought the attraction in February after it closed suddenly in April 2003. Buescher is adding 36 thrill rides, including several roller coasters to a park that had been famous for its water-ski shows, botanical gardens and Southern belles.

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