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What Was Florida's First Commercial Theme Park?


What Was Florida's First Commercial Theme Park?

By Allison Baer | June 23, 2015 | Lifestyle

As Miami-Dade County announces plans for the world's largest retail and complex, Ocean Drive looks back at Florida's original theme park.

The 1953 film Easy to Love, starring Esther Williams, was shot on location at Florida’s original theme park, Cypress Gardens, and features spectacular water-skiing routines and stunts. Williams (in the pink swimsuit) performed her own stunts despite being pregnant during filming.

Miami Dade is abuzz with news of a massive potential theme park, mall, and entertainment complex. Triple Five, the company that owns and operates Minnesota’s Mall of America, is exploring options to build a $4 billion “American Dream Miami,” a 200-acre entertainment complex that would employ more than 25,000 people and would feature submarine rides, an artificial ski slope, a water park, mini golf, a Legoland, a skating rink, and indoor gardens, as well as a hotel and residences.

But eye-catching theme parks are nothing new to the state. In 1936, Cypress Gardens, often cited as Florida’s first commercial tourist theme park, opened to much fanfare. Cypress Gardens provided a lush landscape not only for tourists but for Hollywood, too, serving as a picturesque filming location for the 1941 musical Moon Over Miami, the 1952 film This Is Cinerama, and 1953’s Easy to Love (pictured).

During its heyday, Cypress Gardens was known for its water-skiing shows on Lake Eloise and helped popularize the sport. Other attractions included botanical gardens, Southern belles dressed in tiered antebellum dresses, and a Florida-shaped swimming pool, which had been constructed for Easy to Love. With its postcard-friendly aesthetic, Cypress Gardens’ ads and billboards welcomed tourists to the Sunshine State at various Florida airports.

Decades later, business began to suffer when Walt Disney World and Universal Studios theme parks opened nearby. After 67 years in business, Cypress Gardens closed in 2003, then reopened under new ownership the following year, only to close again for good in 2009. Now, the 200-acre site is part of Legoland. Some of its original attractions, including the Floridashaped pool, have been preserved, and in 2014, Cypress Gardens was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

As we recognize our state’s rich tradition of theme park attractions, we look forward to the wild ride of our future—artificial ski slope and all.

Photography by: photography by state archives of florida, florida memory