Dick Pope Sr., Winter Haven man turned Florida tourism guru

Dick and Julie Pope, c. 1970 | Photo via Florida Memory

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Mr. Florida. The Father of Florida’s Tourism. Mr. Skiing. The Salesman of Sunny Florida. These are just four of the many nicknames commonly used to refer to Dick Pope, Sr. — Florida’s original Walt Disney.

Before the Happiest Place on Earth was even a thought in Walt’s head, there was Dick Pope Sr.’s Cypress Gardens, Florida’s first theme park

Dick Pope Sr., founder of Cypress Gardens + Winter Haven City Commissioner | Photo via Florida Memory

Nestled on the banks of Winter Haven’s Lake Eloise, sat the theme park, founded by Dick and his wife Julie in 1936. The main attraction? Its botanical gardens, which a few thousand visitors saw for the very first time for 25 cents a pop during its early days. Fast-forward to the 1940s, when Julie proposed the addition of young women dressed in antiquated garb to the gardens, as well as a water ski show — deeming Cypress Gardens the water ski capital of the world. Now, that title has been passed to Winter Haven as a whole.

Acrobatic water skiers at Cypress Gardens, c. 1950 | Image via Florida Memory

Dick’s park was such a success in the 50s and 60s that the attraction was featured in a handful of movies with guests such as Elvis Presley, Carol Burnett, and Johnny Carson. The boom led to an increase in ticket prices from $1 to $1.25, and again in ‘53 to $2. Then, in 1963 two worlds collided when Walt Disney himself began scouring Central Florida for a nice plot of land, landing him an invite to Cypress Gardens.

Johnny Carson, Gov. Kirk, and Dick Pope Sr. at Cypress Gardens | Photo via Florida Memory

The story goes that Walt sat outside of the park all day counting every single visitor to enter the gates. Upon Walt’s passing, Roy, Walt’s brother, took over the reins and became friends with the Popes and, when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, Dick Pope was the first visitor to receive a lifetime pass to the Disney parks. 

History of Florida Tourism | Quote by The Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services

Soon, the joint prosperity between the Popes and the Disneys would dwindle as the opening of Walt + Roy’s theme park negatively impacted the crowd levels at Cypress Gardens, leading to Dick’s ultimate retirement + the passing of the baton to his son, Dick Pope Jr. By 1989, the park had been sold to Anheuser-Busch (also the owners of Busch Gardens at the time), and Dick Pope Sr. passed away.

An aerial view of a portion of Cypress Gardens | Photo via Florida Memory

After a few rocky years of park attendance, the gates closed in 2003 until it was revitalized in 2004 by the Georgian theme park owners of Wild Adventures. While this revamp certainly brought crowds back into the park due to the addition of rollercoasters and a new waterpark, Splash Island, the owners couldn’t get the figures where they desired and the park closed, for the final time, in 2009.

Luckily, the grounds didn’t go to waste for too long. In 2010 the park was purchased again, this time as the site for Legoland Florida. While Cypress Gardens was a thing of the past, visitors today can still find remnants of Dick and Julie’s dream such as the botanical gardens (sweetly named the Cypress Gardens), the love chapel wedding gazebo, and a Lego figurine of a young woman, dressed in antiquated garb

Oh, and did we mention the Legos waterski on occasion?  

Legos waterskiing on Lake Eloise at Legoland Florida | Photo via @bruceoriccio

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