Random Florida Fact: The father of Florida tourism

New podcast episode spotlights promoter behind Florida’s first commercial theme park

Dick and Julie Pope standing by the English floral clock at the Cypress Gardens attraction in Winter Haven. 1970 (circa). (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Everyone knows the name Walt Disney.

But do you know about Dick Pope Sr.?

Back when Florida was only known for its oranges and mosquitoes, and decades before Disney dreamed of creating the Happiest Place on Earth, Dick Pope Sr. opened a theme park that would eventually transform Florida into a tourist destination.

Actress Esther Williams leading water skiers at the Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven. 1950 (circa). (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

All week, producer Katrina Scales is diving deeper into her favorite random Florida facts from 2022.

On Thursday’s episode of Your Florida Daily: the flamboyant salesman behind Florida’s first commercial theme park and how he later became known as the father of American water skiing.

Listen below:

As a Florida kid born in the 1990′s, I was part of one of the last generations that got to enjoy Cypress Gardens as a child.

The park had massive topiaries shaped like animals with bright flowers and beautiful women dressed as Southern Belles sitting in the gardens.

Everyone would gather at the lake for the water skiing show.

Acrobatic water skiers jumping during a performance at the Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Florida. 1950 (circa). (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Speedboats flew across the water with five, 10 or even 15 people in tow, often stacked up holding flags or wearing costumes.

It was this unique combo of attractions that brought tourists from all over the world to Florida for over 70 years. And it all got started by one guy: Dick Pope Sr.—well—with the help of his wife, Julie.

Back in the 1920′s, Pope and his brother sold speedboats. Hoping to drum up excitement for customers, he started skiing behind the boats, eventually adding different moves and tricks.

A few years later, Pope actually became the first person to successfully complete a jump on water skis after riding a wooden ramp and landing a distance of 25 ft.

But this isn’t what inspired Pope to open a theme park.

The inspiration actually came a few years later when his wife, Julie, showed Pope a magazine article about a man showing off his manicured gardens around a mansion and charging visitors to see it.

From this, the couple hatched the idea of Cypress Gardens and converted 16 acres of Winter Haven swamp into an idyllic wonderland.

The park opened in 1936 and was an immediate success.

For 25 cents a pop, thousands came to tour the botanical garden. Fast forward to the 1940′s, Julie suggested adding young women in antebellum-style dress to act as hostesses at the park.

Close-up view of an unidentified Southern Belle in a blue antique dress at the Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Florida. 1955. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

During World War II, the story goes that a group of soldiers saw photographs of water skiers on the lake and believed the water ski shows were an attraction.

When the soldiers arrived, ready to pay for tickets to the ski show, Julie rounded up her two kids and their friends and staged an impromptu water skiing exhibition.

The performance was a huge hit and the next weekend hundreds more soldiers arrived to see the show.

From that point on, the shows were a staple at Cypress Gardens.

Fifty world records were broken there, popularizing the sport and turning Winter Haven into the water skiing capital of the world. Celebrities visited and Hollywood filmmakers shot movies at the park leading Pope to increase ticket prices to $1, then $2.

But it wasn’t until 1963 when Pope met an ambitious entrepreneur who was scouring Central Florida for his own theme park.

His name was Walt Disney.

Wearing his signature turquoise suit with bright pink trim, Pope welcomed Disney and fully supported his idea of a massive amusement park, believing that increased tourism would be good for Florida.

In 1971, an hour north of Cypress Gardens, Disney World opened its gates. This ultimately led to a decline in visitors at Cypress Gardens.

Still, Pope remained friends with Disney and became the first visitor to receive a lifetime pass to the new Magic Kingdom.

City Commissioner Richard D. Pope, Sr. - Winter Haven, Florida. 1966. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Despite several changes in ownership, the addition of rollercoasters and a water park, Cypress Gardens never returned to its glory days.

The park officially closed in 2009 but the site didn’t stay empty for long. A couple of years later, Legoland opened in its spot.

Though Cypress Gardens is a thing of the past, the botanical garden remains intact inside Legoland, preserved as a homage to Dick and Julie’s creation.

Stay tuned for more special episodes of Your Florida Daily. Listen every weekday on ClickOrlando.com, Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

About the Author:

Katrina Scales joined News 6 as a TV producer in June 2021.