Gardens taking shape

WINTER HAVEN -- The day after Hurricane Charley ripped through Polk County, Kent Buescher looked over the heap of debris that had been Cypress Gardens' legendary botanical gardens and cried.

Buescher's outlook brightened this week after several thousand people showed up the first day annual passes for the new Cypress Gardens Adventure Park went on sale.

The new owner's quest to reopen the Old Florida attraction had turned out to be more than he bargained for, but "demand is exceeding our expectations at this point," Buescher said.

After two more hurricanes challenged Buescher's resolve in ways he never imagined, his luck seemed to turn around when the park sold 3,000 annual passes at $64.95 a piece a week ago and continued selling about $80,000 worth per day this week.

The unexpected turnout offered a pleasing, if preliminary, answer to doubts that have hung over Buescher's campaign to revive an attraction that declined from legendary to marginal during its 67-year run before closing in April 2003.

Could Cypress Gardens attract enough visitors in the back yard of theme park behemoths Walt Disney World, Universal and Busch Gardens? Would the attraction's loyal senior customers return after roller coasters and other thrill rides were added?

Brisk early pass sales seem to hint "yes."

Jim and Norma Schmidt of Winter Haven had just renewed their Cypress Gardens passes a week before it closed in 2003, but they waited in line Thursday to buy new passes.

"We like to come to the concerts, and it looks like they have some good entertainment," said Jim Schmidt, 75. "It looks like he's putting a lot into it."

A massive cash infusion was key to Buescher's successful campaign for the park.

The deal that closed in February included $7 million from Buescher for 120 acres of the attraction, $2.5 million from Polk County for the 30-acre botanical gardens and $11 million from the state for the entire property's development rights.

Additionally, Buescher pledged to invest $36 million during the first 18 months to restore the park to its former glory and add the thrill rides he considers critical to attracting young families.

Buescher now expects that first wave of investment to reach $50 million even as he continues to haggle with insurers over the extent of the hurricanes' damage. The insurers' initial assessment was $2.5 million, but Buescher argues it was closer to $8 million.

Damage assessments have at times held up financing, with his backers wanting a clear picture before proceeding. "I think in the end of the day it's going to be a blip," Buescher said of the storm delays.

Parts of the park appear ready for the photo-snapping masses, while others remain works in progress -- some being rebuilt for the second time. Hurricanes, security issues and material and labor shortages have conspired against Buescher's Florida debut.

The light poles for the parking lot were on site until Tampa Electric Co. repossessed them after the hurricanes to use in more critical areas. Hurricane Charley took down a few of Buescher's billboards advertising the new park, and Frances felled all 40. Some thrill rides were delayed in the Port of Miami.

The hurricanes of August and September not only damaged many renovations but also created a greater demand for skilled labor, further delaying projects.

"This has been the most insane time you could almost ever imagine," he said, darting from one corner of the park to another in a golf cart. Buescher figured the storms set him back about 120 days, explaining an opening that has slid deeper into the year. A soft opening is now planned for late November with an official grand opening Dec. 9.

While keeping up a manic pace that has him flying between Winter Haven and his Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta, Ga., three times a week, Buescher consoles himself with stories of other inauspicious theme park beginnings.

This week, he recalled one account of Disneyland's 1955 opening when the asphalt for the main entrance was laid the night before the big day. When women decked out in the style of the era entered the park, their high heels sank into the still-gooey pavement.

"It helps provide some comfort," Buescher said. "There will be challenges."

Christopher Sherman can be reachedat csherman@orlandosentinel.comor 863-422-3395.

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