A weekend ago, in a rare show of college-aged filial piety, I went home to visit my parents. Now, besides commiserating with my mom and step-dad, who had both caught some kind of cold around the same time I did, I managed to spend a bit of time with a good friend of mine, Nicole. Hanging out with her this weekend, I realized that I could probably dedicate an entire post (or series of posts) to Nicole, whose very life seems to perpetually evoke references to books published by the University Press of Florida. For example (a very, very small example), Nicole is both a full time student at Florida Southern College as well an employee at the newly opened Legoland in Winter Haven. While I’d like to pursue Florida Southern College, where I myself spent quite a bit of time (on the roof), I’ve decided that I’d like to talk a bit about Legoland, as well as its rather famous predecessor, Cypress Gardens.
Growing up in Central Florida, I spent much of my childhood on the attraction park circuit. My parents and I (and often grandparents, out-of-state relatives, and visiting friends) went to Cypress Gardens a number of times, both pre- and post-water park inclusion, mostly due to the proximity of Winter Haven to Lakeland as well as how cheap it was relative to the big Orlando theme parks. I have fond memories of water skiing shows, chasing ducks, flower-lined paths, and resisting my seven-year-old urge to climb any and all floral sculptures that I saw. More than anything else, however, I wanted the chance to be a Southern Belle. Every time we stepped through the ticket lines and I saw the posters, saw the girls being brought back to the changing rooms, I begged my poor mother to let me do it. For some reason, there was nothing more appealing than dressing up in bulky, old-fashioned clothes and, well, sitting around. Glad I’m finally out of that stage.
Like any great local monument, Cypress Gardens was phased out with equal measures of sadness and joy. In the days leading up to Legoland’s grand opening last weekend, the folks around UPF have been talking about Cypress Gardens. The press is fortunate to have one of the most comprehensive and beautiful books on the history of Cypress Gardens, Cypress Gardens, America’s Tropical Wonderland, by Lu Vickers, and has found a number of new ways to promote and sell the book in the wake of Cypress Gardens’ closing. Originally I was going to write up a post that also features Vickers’ lovely compilation, but as I started thinking about Cypress Gardens and things I could write, I was reminding of my own initial thoughts about the construction of Legoland on the bones of Cypress Gardens. When I first heard the news, I was somewhat indignant. As a local, I suddenly found I had fond feelings for the place, despite my last trip there having been rather lackluster. I felt as though Legoland was destroying not only a bastion of native Florida history, but eliminating one of the few safe havens of Florida landscaping and botany. While I eventually got over these feelings, I was still left with some distinct thoughts on the tourism industry in Florida, which must perpetually update itself (and more than often take a few sacrifices) in order to survive.
So, if you’re still following this tangle of thoughts, I was eventually brought to two books here at the press that I realized dealt very deftly with the Cypress Gardens issue, if not indirectly. The first is Tracy Revels’s Sunshine Paradise: A History of Florida Tourism, which I’m looking forward to getting my hands on as soon as possible. Revel’s book does just what it says, laying out a pretty impressive history of the growth of the tourism industry in Florida which, surprisingly, goes back nearly 300 years. 300 years of Florida tourism. And you thought the Mouse was an impressive monolith. The book not only covers the development of tourism in Florida, but the development of Florida in tourism, looking at how our tourism industry has changed Florida business and politics.
The second book I’d like to bring up is Bill Bellville’s Losing it All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape. This might seem like a strange connection, considering that much of Belleville’s book looks at how the state’s extensive growth in the early 2000’s - and even before that - threatened his natural cracker community, often with bulldozers. But beyond that, Belleville’s book opens eyes to the vast amount of natural habitat conquered in the name of modernization and expansion, often at the hands of (once again) politicians and businesses.
Between these two there’s a type of interplay that, at least in my mind, deals with the rise of Legoland. Certainly Cypress Gardens wasn’t “natural” Florida landscaping - but it was a little bit of green, a safe haven for both Florida foliage and kitsch. In the same way Belleville watched the cracker landscape (both natural and cultural) transform into a shopping mall, locals and Cypress Garden lovers have watched the park transition from gardens to something that was part garden, part water park, part fair grounds, to all-out theme park under a completely different name - a transition that I know was hard for some. At the same time, the development of Legoland has really helped renew the area, bringing in jobs and money (I personally know at least five people who have gotten jobs at Legoland. None of them have yet to offer me a free trip). Beyond a doubt those same trends are seen in Revels’s book - Florida tourism is all about changing to keep up with the time and demands. It presents the question of where we’re going, and how much of Florida tourism might eat up. Both books also lead one to wonder exactly how dependent the state is on the tourism industry.
In the end, if you want to get a taste of what’s happening in Florida tourism, check out Legoland, and check out Tracy Revels’s Sunshine Paradise and Bill Belleville’s Losing it All to Sprawl. (both available from the University Press of Florida directly through their website, Amazon, and through certain better booksellers)