The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s earliest and most famous themed attractions, has been capturing the imaginations of visitors for over seventy years. Originally opened by visionary promoter Dick Pope and his wife Julie in the mid-1930s, the gardens featured acres of blooming flowers, trees, and shrubbery, along with aquatic stunt shows and boat tours.

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

Although the beauty of the gardens alone makes them a Florida treasure, the story of how Cypress Gardens came to be is an equally valuable part of the rich history of Florida tourism. The land was little more than a swamp when founder Dick Pope acquired it, but Pope’s cunning business mind combined with a little luck to make the whole production come off beautifully. As Pope once told author Norman Vincent Peale, his motto was to “think big about everything.”

The

The “Swami of the Swamp” himself, Dick Pope, Sr (1966).

The idea to build a botanical garden for tourists came to Pope during a rough patch in his life. In the 1910s and 1920s, he and his brother Malcolm had been heavily involved in aquatic stunts and boat racing, as well as developing promotions for outboard motor companies like Johnson Motors. As the Great Depression took hold, however, demand for his services dropped, and Pope found himself looking for other projects. He was riding with his wife Julie in their car one day when a magazine article caught his eye. A man in Charleston, South Carolina had built up an impressive set of gardens on his estate, and had had success getting tourists to pay a small admission charge to visit. Dick Pope decided he could do something similar in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had spent much of his childhood and teenage years.

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

Pope quickly bought up several acres of land and a shuttered boat club on Lake Eloise and began preparing them for service as a botanical garden. The labor necessary to achieve this was extensive, of course, but Pope had a few ideas up his sleeve. He approached the local commission charged with managing the canals connecting Lake Eloise with the neighboring bodies of water, and convinced its board to invest $2,800 in his project, which he called “a community park.” He also incorporated the new attraction as a non-profit organization so he could apply for funding from the Works Progress Administration to construct it. After touring the area in a boat with Dick Pope explaining his plans, representatives from the WPA signed off on the project, and soon Dick Pope had a group of federal relief workers busy clearing brush, improving canals, and laying out walkways to serve the new gardens.

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

It wasn’t long before local and federal officials realized that this was much more a private venture than a community park, and the WPA and the local canal commission withdrew their support. Pope was jokingly labeled the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maharaja of Muck” for his manipulative handiwork, but he remained determined to open Cypress Gardens. He reorganized the business and began the planting process with the help of gardener Vernon Rutter of Tennessee. Julie Pope was heavily involved as well, as her husband admitted that he “didn’t know an azalea from a carrot” in those early days. Pope also enlisted the assistance of photographer Robert Dahlgren to ensure that the gardens were laid out in such a way that no matter which direction a camera was pointed, the photograph it captured would be appealing.

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Cypress Gardens officially opened on January 24, 1935. Pope pulled every string in his arsenal of connections to get photographs of the gardens placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. He even managed to get the new attraction featured in several films, which added to the publicity. He invited beauty queens, movie stars, aquatic stunt performers – anyone who might draw attention to Cypress Gardens. Over time, the gardens would host a wide array of distinguished guests, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, President John F. Kennedy, and King Hussein of Jordan. Even the Shah of Iran came once to water-ski on the lake. Asked about the honor of hosting the Shah, Pope quipped, “There’s no business like Shah business.”

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

Cypress Gardens remained successful in the coming years, although changes in tourism and demographics began taking their toll by the early 1970s. Gas prices and shortages, the arrival of larger parks like Walt Disney World, and the tendency of families to make shorter, more location-specific trips cut into the attraction’s market share. Dick Pope and his son, Dick Pope, Jr., tried to adjust to meet the challenge, but found it impossible to catch up. The attraction changed hands several times before finally closing in 2009. The gardens themselves have been preserved as part of a new attraction called Legoland.

Dick Pope passed away in 1988, but his contributions to Florida tourism are honored in several lasting tributes. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Tourism Studies is named for him, and in 2014 Cypress Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens? Tell us about your experiences by commenting on our post. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of your favorite Florida tourist attractions.

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10 thoughts on “The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

  1. As a Florida born youngster, I was there many times. Loved the water ski shows, bought the Cypress Garden Brand skis of all sorts and water skied a lot near my home in Bradenton. Had a nice book of Popes about the development of water skiing and featured his son and many famous skiers who names appeared on his trademark trick and slalom skis. Also featured Sarasota’s Joe Cash who pioneered barefoot skiing and introduced the beach and deepwater barefoot take-off. Also featured was the Esther Williams movie, Easy to Love, which was filmed at Cypress Gardens and the Florida shaped pool built for the set was still there at my last visit. My favorite time to go was in the spring was when all the azaleas were in bloom. Sadly they are now neglected. Have not been to Legoland yet.

  2. I lived in Sarasota from ’48 til ’68, then Ft. Lauderdale area until 1979… Visited Cypress Gardens MANY times and loved each time. A surprise in around 1977/78 when I took several employees from Hallandale to visit … we were watching the show when I heard a very familiar voice – one I had heard on WBT, Charlotte NC – announcing the acts. Looked around and it was E. Richard Bennick, who I graduated highschool with in 1946 …. Dick, to me = D. Paul Bearer to You folks. WHAT A SURPRISE … hadn’t seen or heard from him since 1948 !!! His deep, resonant voice made the ‘shows’ more exciting and my heart jumps each time I remember that visit. Sadly, I returned to Winter Haven to bury ‘Richard’, in February of ’95 … he was 66, as was I ….I am now 87 and STILL can see him in front of audiences at ‘Spook shows’ in North Carolina …. MEMORIES, folks = hang on to them. Noel #1

  3. My late sister, Callie Littlefield was one of the professional water skiers. She had some great stories from her time there.

  4. Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales actually had the first known water-ski show in the world on that little lake for dinner guests to watch out of the window. The Tibado family moved the ski show to Cypress gardens and somehow Dick Pope got involved. I am pretty sure some version of that story is correct.

  5. I have many fond memories of Cypress Gardens, went there as a child with my parents. Went several time as a young college student having friends who worked in the park. Even had a college acquaintance from Greece who was on their Olympic ski team who practiced on the lake with the Cypress Gardens ski crew. I went to college in nearby Webber College. We use to have our homecoming ball in the venue…. Oh, it was so beautiful to take strolls in the night through the gardens. Our last ball was not long before the sinkhole took the venue.

  6. Spent a lot of time there in my childhood. Dick Pope was a friend of my grandfather and our next door neighbor was a DJ for WGTO in the late 60s, his son and I would go to work with him on Saturdays. The radio studio was inside the attraction so we two ran wild for the day, watching Corky, the ski shows and peeking at the beauties that strolled the gardens.Was sad to see the place diminish through the years. A true bit of old Florida history.

  7. Cypress Gardens hosted a large antique car show every year. My family had cars in the show in the 1990’s. This was our favorite car show. We were there on Saturday and Sunday. The park was beautiful and peaceful. Nothing like it’s neighbor Disney World. The ski shows were fun to watch. I am sad to hear that the park is closed.

  8. My family used to go in the 70’s and early 80’s. I thing I distinctly remember is that at one point on the walking path that overlooked a scenic part of the lake, there was payphone with a sign that encouraged visitors to call their friends and tell them they were at Cypress Gardens. That was pretty amazing back then.

  9. As a teenager, I begged my mother to take me out to the gardens so I could apply as an antebellum model sought after by local teenage girls. Dick Pope’s house, nestled behind a gate and tall shrubby faced the sothwest side of Lake Howard in Winter Haven. My dad helped build the canals at the gardens. I wish I had asked dad more about it. It may have been part of Roosevelt’s WPA project (even though not government related) in the 1930s.
    I have a photograph of me sitting on the low lying branch of the wishing tree as a teen.
    I enjoyed your blog. There is a lot of history to be written about Winter Haven.

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