Any amusement park experience that is initiated by an eye-roll from a toothfully challenged metal-detector attendant – one who explains that the unexpected security is the fault of the “lead singer from Styx; he was a paranoid schizophrenic,” not Sept. 11 – is obviously to be relished.
The Cypress Gardens Adventure Park sojourn doesn’t begin at the entry gate, however, but at the moment you pass the mouse-eared power-line poles signaling the end of the Walt Disney empire heading west on I-4. That’s when Old Florida starts to unfold – a peppering of dilapidated citrus groves that scream “children of the orange,” the eventual run-down tourist-trap feeling of giant signs boasting “candy for the kids” and “towels by the pound,” and later the humble strip-mall nostalgia of old Winter Haven – and the time machine flips joyfully back to sticky summers of Jordache and Little Darlings. Your hair literally feathers itself by the time you reach the old-man parking attendant, and something inside throws down all undue pretensions and falls into cheap leisure.
Unfortunately, Styx aren’t here today to help ease the trashy transition (that was a year and a half ago), but no worries: The recent acquisition of the classic Panama City Beach roller coaster, Miracle Strip Amusement Park’s legendary wooden Starliner (built in 1963), turns up the trash level just fine. In fact, this particular correspondent lost his bladder on the front seat of the original some 30 years ago. The ride itself is more about survival than amusement, with a small, rickety train of cars flying over clunky humps and rattling the inner organs to near failure. But there is a particular Zen to be achieved here (the coaster’s attendant says that it’s most likely to be found in the back car, but that the middle “pulls you both ways”), and sometimes fear can get you there.
The Starliner is just part of the new (while still old) face of the storied Cypress Gardens concourse, one that boasts a pedigree of water ski “firsts” and Esther Williams films. The old-versus-new bipolarity comes in part from the park’s relaunch in November 2004, following its whimpering demise in April 2003. Some of the original 1936, wholesome, Dick and Julie Pope flair is still present today – with all due hilarity, former Miss Georgia Burma Davis Posey enlisted fellow pageant queen Delta Burke to light the historical fires that led to the park’s resurgence – and you can find it in the lush (if poorly maintained) botanical gardens, the skiing pyramids and, most prominently, in the wincing faces of little girls dressed up like Southern belles for souvenir photos.
“There used to be a lot of famous people coming through here,” vaguely explains a gift shop associate named Wanda. One suspects that there aren’t anymore.
These days an incongruous group of midway rides in the Adventure Grove helps to bolster the park’s “Adventure” status and seem to deride the lazy, polite nature of the Cypress Gardens legend. The Inverter swings a giant platform upside-down, leaving riders to deal with the wallet-thieving wrath of gravity. The Galaxy Spin is a lazy attempt at a suspended roller coaster that’s so short it goes around twice. And isn’t it tasteless to have the Triple Hurricane right across the walkway from the Storm Surge? The whole lot of them seem to be designed either as poorly knocked-off replicas of successful rides at other theme parks or state-fair death traps built to withstand funnel-cake vomit.
Needless to say, the Adventure doesn’t appear to be working out very well at all, as on the day we attended there were no lines at any of the rides (the ones that were actually open, that is), and nobody who worked there could explain a word about the park’s history or, indeed, why they were there at all. Tellingly, its parent company, Adventure Parks Group, filed for bankruptcy in September 2006 after the storm damages of 2004. Triple Hurricane, indeed.
From the lazy vantage point of the Tiki Bar, just outside the chlorinated lazy river of the adjacent Splash Island Water Park, no such fickle brow-cocking is necessary. With just a sip of warm wine from a plastic cup, a waft of cocoa butter, and some Speedo-dads and their screaming children, it’s clear that Cypress Gardens is a monument to a real Central Floridian history that’s been lost in the plantation-house presumptions and the dainty parasols of clumsily crafted elitist legend.
This is who we are. And this is where we came from.