Cypress Gardens Blooms Again

Taking a break over the weekend from my family's traditional Thanksgiving trek out to Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Disney World theme park haven, we were beckoned by the reopening of Cypress Gardens some 40 miles away.

Florida's original theme park closed last year as the picture-postcard water-ski show and lush botanical gardens just weren't cutting it at the gate. Pretty became passé as Southern belles in hoopskirts and balance-defying skier pyramids couldn't bottle the adrenaline rush that younger generations craved.

It wasn't fair. Disney, Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD  ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) had the capital to grow their Central Florida theme park attractions. Even regional park operators such as Six Flags (NYSE: PKS  ) and Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) have known to stay away from setting up shop in the populous state of Florida. So why is Cypress Gardens giving it another go?

I'll admit that I never looked forward to my trips to Cypress Gardens as a kid. My parents and my sisters loved the place, but it let me down long before I returned the favor. Yet that didn't stop me from having my conscience hand-dipped in regret when the park eventually closed last year. When I heard that Kent Buescher had succeeded in buying the park and was going to liven up the attraction with more than three dozen rides and animal shows and exhibits I vowed to follow my father's footsteps and take my own family there to show my support.

While the official grand opening won't be for another two weeks the incomplete park still unlocked the turnstiles over the weekend for the first time to give guests a preview. While many of the exhibits, eateries and shows were closed most of the rides were up and running, and -- annual passes in hand -- we had a great time.

You don't need to have deep pockets to make a park work. The fastest-growing park over the past decade has been family-owned Holiday World. Its attendance has nearly tripled over the past dozen years, and its well-earned international Applause Award won earlier this month was the result of the park's ability to grow its attractions without alienating its fan base.

Buescher has been successful in transforming his Wild Adventures animal park in Georgia into a full-blown patron magnet of an amusement park over the years, and his early work at Cypress Gardens holds promise.

The crowds didn't exactly pour in over the preview weekend. Mickey Mouse isn't exactly quivering with fear. Yet give the park time. Second chances have their best chance to bloom when the soil is patient.

Have you ever been to a park that is now closed? What became of it? Our Travel Center may be a good place to plan that next trip to rescue a struggling park before it folds, but which rides are endangered? All this and more -- in the Rollercoaster Loving Fools discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz plans on going back to Cypress Gardens a few more times in 2005. He has also made it a point to visit smaller traditional parks to go along with the themed behemoths. He owns shares of Disney and units in Cedar Fair. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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