National recognition sought for Cypress Gardens

BARTOW, Fla. - Polk County commissioners are on board with an effort to bring national recognition to the former Cypress Gardens tourist attraction.

The commission on Tuesday approved a resolution supporting the idea being floated by Bob Gernert - executive director of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce - to get the site of the botanical gardens and ski show listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In a letter to the commission, Gernert explained the listing would aid in attempts to promote heritage tourism in the county.

According to The Ledger of Lakeland the area could also be eligible for historic preservation funds to restore the Florida-shaped swimming pool and the retaining walls in the canals.

Cypress Gardens closed in 2009 and much of the property was developed into the Legoland amusement park that opened in 2011. However, the botanical gardens remain under a state conservation easement. Polk County owns the 30 acres that includes the botanical gardens and water ski area. The county paid $5 million for that parcel.

Cypress Gardens was founded in 1936 by the late Dick and Julie Pope, becoming one of Florida's pioneering tourist attractions. The ski show debuted in 1943.

The park was featured in several movies and television shows from the 1940s to the 1960s that featured such stars as Elvis Presley, Esther Williams and Arthur Godfrey.

Gernert told commissioners the designation would be a nice tribute to the Pope's legacy. He said receiving the designation would be "Polk County's moment in the viva Florida 500 celebration."

History and tourism officials from the area have been holding meetings to organize a local heritage trail to attract visitors to the county's historical and cultural sites.

The newspaper reports 67 other Polk County sites - ranging from old schools to home and entire neighborhoods - have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places since Congress authorized the program in 1966.

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