Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cypress Gardens

So the big news out of Orlando this week is that Merlin Entertainment (the owners of Legoland, amongst other things) are buying Cypress Gardens.

A brief history of Cypress Gardens is necessary to understand its current position.

The park opened in 1936 as a botanical garden - and became the most popular attraction in Florida, thanks in part to the beautiful scenery and the waterski shows. The original owners held onto it until their retirement, then passed it to their son. Their son decided he didn't want to run the park anymore, and moved to sell it.

A group of investors including rival Circus World theme park (which would later become Boardwalk and Baseball) and SeaWorld/Anheuser Busch bought the park in the early 1980's - but the partners relenquished their stake in the park to Busch. 6 years later, the park's management bought the park from Busch.

Then, in 2003, after the tourism decline thanks to 9/11, the park shut down for the first time. Enter Adventure Parks Group, who bought the park in 2004. They intended to reopen in late Summer 2004, but the awful hurricane season intervened and delayed it.

Adventure parks, however, did a good thing - they decided to add rides to the park. They bought some off the shelf thrill rides (mostly from Vekoma), and a handful of roller coasters from other parks to try to inject some fun into the park. They also built a waterpark on site, expanding the park and its appeal. Unfortunately, by the fall of 2006 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The cost of repairs from the hurricanes proved too much to recover from. It should be noted that the park did not close at this point.

Land South Adventures bought the park in a bankruptcy auction in late 2007, and replaced the management team with Baker Leisure Group in early 2008. Baker Leisure Group has been the management team for dozens of attractions and has a huge amount of experience in the industry, including taking over operations at Freestyle Music Park (Formerly Hard Rock Park).

Land South temporarily closed the park in late 2008, reopening in March 2009, and did something I don't understand - they removed all the rides. Remember, the reason the park was sold last was because of the financial difficulty they had after the hurricanes and repairs, and at least publically the issue was not park attendance or profitability. Insurance companies were notoriously slow in paying out to ANYONE, but businesses had an especially tough time.

So the rides are now gone, and they split the waterpark off into a separate gate from Cypress Gardens, and reopen in March 2009. Not surprisingly, 6 months later, the park was immediately closed stating that they'd investigated every possible avenue to keep the park open, and it wasn't a possibility.

Then this week Merlin Entertainment bought the park (or if you read the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, Legoland bought it). Do they own and operate much more than Legoland - they operate the London Eye, the Madam Tussaud's locations, and plenty more locations - mostly overseas.

This is the map that shows the distance between Walt Disney World and Cypress Gardens. It's about a 1 hour drive, give or take a little bit. If you're trying to open a new park in the Orlando area - you don't do it in Winter Haven, an hour away from the market you're trying to be in.

It's been no secret that there has been some interest in building a Legoland in the Orlando area - this past summer speculation ran wild that Legoland was close to buying a spot on Highway 192, but was also considering buying Cypress Gardens.

So with no official confirmation as to what their plans are, who knows what Merlin is up to. Could they be building a Legoland park in Florida? Or are they looking to revitalize the park and run it mostly as is?

My question about this whole situation would be who wants to buy a park that's closed 3 times and has changed hands 6 times now?

Was the price so cheap that they couldn't refuse? Or is there some charm in those gardens that you just can't find anywhere else? Personally, I wouldn't touch that area with a 10 foot pole. Who wants to start the countdown for when the park closes again? If it is indeed a Legoland, the park will not sell again - it will close. Merlin isn't about to let a Legoland location be owned by someone else.

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