Growing up in Central Florida means coming of age among the ruins of tourist attractions. The Deep South is haunted by visions of Confederate glory, and hopes remain of a rebirth. But Floridians are nostalgic for the inherently ephemeral, the gaudy magic of a roadside monorail covered in plastic leaves. (Yes, this attraction existed. It was called Rainbow Springs, and I've been to the site. All that's left is the track, running empty through the trees.) Maybe I'm being pretentious, but I think Floridians are among the only folks born after 1950 who can really identify with Jay Gatsby's love of the green light, who can understand that the light's flim-flammery is what makes it so desirable.
My childhood was filled with these lost attractions, all of them slowly being eaten away by time and the economic pressures of a monolithic mouse in Orlando. Some I saw for myself, like Boardwalk and Baseball, with its giant ferris wheel, Royal Lippizaner horses and mock Atlantic City boardwalk (minus the water). Some I only saw mouldered traces of, like the Christian theme park with the giant Last Supper mural. (My dad built his duplex development not 200 yards from where the park's skyway once hung.) Whenever I go home, I drive by these places, and they give me a feeling of loss and longing, like something special and bright once existed here and has now been boarded up and left to the deer and alligators. The only other time I've experienced this feeling was in Japan, where I visited abandoned Shinto shrines and felt a more chilling version of the same thing: Something magical happened here once, and now it's gone.
I'm thinking about such things today because while reading the paper at lunch, I discovered rather belatedly that Cypress Gardens closed its gates permanently in April, joining the ranks of lost attractions. Cypress Gardens was Florida's first designed tourist attraction. It was the home of the world's biggest waterskiing show, and the site of acres of topiaries and Southern Belles -- women in sleeveless hoop dresses who waved becomingly at the tourists passing by in boats. It was also about twenty minutes from my family's house.
It's not too much to say I came of age at Cypress Gardens. At age six I hid in my mother's arms at the park's Halloween ice skating show when a werewolf appeared -- it's one of my most vivid childhood memories. Almost every weekend my sister and I went to the park, either with our parents or grandparents. When I was ten years old, I possibly spent as much time at Cypress Gardens then I did at my church. As I became a teenager, many of my friends got jobs at the Gardens: the boys as concessionaires, the girls more often as Belles. One of my best high school friends, John Michael Marchetti, managed the kiddie rides, and got me into the park for free on many summer afternoons. We'd wander around the place, checking out the flowers, the skiers and the girls. Mostly the girls.
Anyway, it only seems appropriate to take a moment to remember my top five favorite memories of the Gardens, in no particular order. Most of these memories cemented themselves in my head when I was at my aforementioned peak of attendance, around my tenth year under heaven.
1. Island in the Sky. It was basically a moderately sized, round, rotating observation deck with a large molded plastic volcano in the middle. It sat in the middle of a slime-encrusted pond that served as home to a family of pathologically torpid turtles. Attached to this "island" was a long hydraulic arm which lifted the platform out of its pond some 150 feet into the air, where it slowly spun. You were supposed to remain seated, but no one ever did. All the passengers got up and walked around, taking in the views of the park and the surrounding lakes and orange groves. When you've never lived in the mountains, 150 feet seems pretty damn high.
2. Whistlestop USA. When I was ten years old, this was the greatest attraction of all time, because a) it was inside an air conditioned building, unlike the stupid flowers my parents wanted to see, and b) it had lots of model trains. In fact, Whistlestop USA was billed as the largest model train layout in America, and I still cannot find it in my heart to doubt this contention. The trains traveled through vast landscapes of red canyons and white ski slopes, past circuses and (I remember this with particular freshness) a tiny drive-in movie theater that showed a real movie on its four inch screen. There were parades, an apartment building on fire, waterfalls, and cotton thunderclouds dyed a somber gray, from which flashes of lightning occassionally emerged. Displayed in miniature form, America seemed like a magnificent and mysterious place to a boy of ten.
3. Corky the Waterskiing Clown. The most famous waterski performer at the Gardens was "Banana George" Blair, who was like 875 years old and still skied barefoot in a bright yellow spandex suit. He was very good, but I was always more fond of Corky, who did crazy things like get halfway up the ski jump and skid to a halt, afraid to go any further. Then the boat driver would yank him off and he'd fall into the water. This was quite funny. Then Corky would come back to shore and explain to the two grandstands what had happened. He had a very squawky voice that bordered on the unintelligible. This was also sidesplitting. Again, it is important to remember that I was ten years old. Later I became very cynical about Corky, especially after I discovered women, and realized that I was not with any, but was instead watching a waterskiing clown with my parents. Sometimes I would mutter mean things at Corky, sarcastic, vicious jabs at his manhood. Since that time, I have come to see the error of my ways, having spent a good many evenings with women that I would much rather have spent in the presence of a waterskiing clown. So Corky, wherever you are: I'm sorry.
4. The Capyberas. Cypress Gardens had a special animal section of the park. It wasn't terribly impressive, but it included an aviary and a reptile show, and had boardwalk area with alligators and emus, which was nice for strolling along the side of Lake Eloise and thinking about why you had spent the day watching a waterskiing clown and not with H________, the girl of your dreams. It also had capyberas, which are really nothing more than oversized shaggy aquatic rats. But I was very fond of the capyberas. They were awkward, ugly, pudgy and bored, qualities that I identified with from an early age. One of the first diary entries I wrote, at about age five, concerned capyberas, and I required my mother to look up the proper spelling in the dictionary. I was an anxious child.
5. The Fourth of July Lee Greenwood Gulf War Waterskiing Extravagana. The waterski shows at the Gardens rotated regularly, each with a different name and theme ("Ski! Ski! Ski! Everybody's Skin' Caribbean!") but all with the same basic elements: jumping off ramps at increasingly dangerous speeds, a hangglider, a ski pyramid, Banana George, and Corky. But one particular show stands out in my mind. It was the Fouth of July, 1991, and American troops had just returned from kicking Saddam out of Kuwait. So Cypress Gardens, which always had a fireworks display, went the extra mile, bringing in someone to stand on a platform in the middle of Lake Eloise as skiiers zipped around him and fireworks exploded above, to sing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." (To this day, I have the hazy memory that it actually was Lee Greenwood himself. I know I thought it was him at the time.) I was, of course, ten years old. And I have never felt so patriotic in my life. The flags were waving, the skiiers were jumping, the sparklers were, um, sparkling, Lee was singing about starting all over again with just his children and his wife, and I knew that America was the most wonderful place on earth. A storm was building on the horizon, and there was an pre-thunderstorm electricity in the air, which made Lee's sentiments about standing up next to you to defend her still today seem all the more fragile, since there was a decent chance that he would be fried by a bolt of lightning at any moment. And all this passionate belief in the American way of life hit my prepubescent brain and I started to cry.
And I guess that's the thing I'll miss most about Cypress Gardens: It was hokey, sure, but it was a place of unironic wonder, where people stood impressed at bushes carved into the shape of frogs, marveled at miniature clouds overlooking miniature trains, and wept with pride at America. Cypress Gardens still awakens that ten-year-old boy in me, for whom a little theme park is the world, and the world is beautiful as hell. And it hurts to know that little world has closed up.Posted by mesh at August 12, 2003 06:14 PM | TrackBack