Florida’s First Theme Park
Before Walt Disney World and the rest of Central Florida’s sprawl of tourist destinations were built, there were four-tier human pyramids and lines of women skimming effortlessly in unison across the water in Winter Haven, Florida. There were wooden skis, barefooting antics and early attempts at wake surfing. At the center of it all was the Pope family, purveyors of all things water ski and legends in their own right. Cypress Gardens is their legacy.
The skiing world — and lovers of old Florida charm — were shocked when Cypress Gardens officials announced April 13 that the venerable attraction, Florida’s oldest theme park, was shuttering its doors. It didn’t take long, however, for Cypress Gardens supporters and private business interests to jump in with plans for saving the Gardens. Within a matter of days, Florida Governor Jeb Bush — backlogged with more e-mails on the subject than his office could handle— vowed that the state would look into the matter.
Ideas for using the Gardens are now being circulated, including a proposal for the state to purchase the property and lease it to an outside management company. Seizing on the opportunity, businesses have been jockeying for a chance to run the Gardens, promising millions of dollars in refurbishment, perhaps expanding the attractions, and even assembling memorabilia from Gone With the Wind and other movies into a museum. Although the details still have to be sorted, it looks like strong feelings for the Gardens have assured its survival in some form or another.
To see the entire Cypress Gardens overview and an interview with Dick Pope Jr., pick up the July 2003 issue of WaterSki magazine.
Pope and Schwenk
A generational clash on the water
Don’t let it be said that Dick Pope Jr. doesn’t go
with the flow. Recently, he and pro wakeboarder Zane Schwenk went
out on the lake. “I was so impressed with Zane,” he
said. “I’d seen just a little bit of wakeboarding, but
I’d never before seen anything like what he did. It was
How did these two get together? Zane’s wife, Jennifer, a
pilot, began flying Pope to locations throughout Florida. After
talking about his early barefooting exploits, Jennifer told Pope
about Zane’s wakeboarding and decided he had to see it.
“We loaded him into the X-Star,” says Zane,
“and showed him the ballast and the Perfect Pass and all
these things I take for granted, but he was intrigued. These things
wouldn’t have been possible without Dick paving the way for
Would wakeboarding have been part of Dick’s Cypress
Gardens? “Of course,” he says. “Anything on the
water would be successful. Things don’t stand still.
The 60-Year Reunion
Closing of Gardens didn’t cancel scheduled water-ski
He was on the Cypress Gardens ski teams for 23 years, and now
Lynn Novakofski carries on his skiing passion at USA Water Ski, the
governing body for American amateur skiing. “It’s
great,” he says of the sport. “The lifestyle is
healthy, active and full of great people.”
Lynn says Dick Pope Jr. was a wonderful boss, and rather low-key
compared with his hard-driving father. During his time with the
Gardens, Lynn helped develop the four-tier pyramid, the 360 swivel,
strap doubles and freestyle jumps. He emphasized practice,
practice, practice when it came to perfecting the tricks.
“The emphasis during the ’50s and ’60s was on the
daring-do,” he says. “Just do it well enough to get a
photo. When I came, my emphasis was on doing it over and
Not one to forget the long legacy of Cypress Gardens, Lynn is
making sure the 60-year reunion of former Gardens skiers will go
off as planned. It is scheduled for Labor Day weekend at the Water
Ski Hall of Fame in Auburndale. More than 1,000 skiers have worked
at the Gardens, so he’s expecting a good showing. “And
we won’t have a sinkhole, but something else fun to
do,” he says, referring to the 60-foot wide sinkhole that
opened on Gardens grounds during his tenure. For more information,
contact Lynn at USA Water Ski, 863-324-4341.