Richard Downing Pope, Sr. better known as Dick Pope, was the founder of Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida. He is also known as “Mr. Florida”. Pope played a momentous role in the development of tourism in the state of Florida and the growth of theme parks as tourist destinations.
Dick Pope was born in Des Moines, Iowa and in 1908 his family moved to Lake Wales, Florida. In 1926, he met his wife, Julie Pope and together they spent most of their lives in and around Winter Haven as members of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, and had two children, Dick Pope, Jr. and Adrienne Pope Watkins.
He sold estate business at an early age and was a natural promoter and salesman. During the Great Depression he and his brother had some success promoting speedboats and aquaplanes on lakes throughout Florida.
In the early 1930s, his wife Julie showed him an article in Good Housekeeping magazine about a man charging visitors money to see the manicured gardens around his mansion home. From this, they hatched the idea of Cypress Gardens, and over the next few years they worked to convert a section of swamp land on the shores of Lake Eloise into a theme park garden. On January 2, 1936, Dick and Julie Pope officially opened their famed theme park, charging visitors 25 cents each to visit; Cypress Gardens was an immediate success!
The Dick Pope Story
Cypress Gardens eventually grew to over 200 acres of land, and host more than a million visitors annually. The theme park provided visitors with an escape from the everyday world, and originally featured idyllic botanical gardens and southern belles working as hostesses.
During World War II, a group of soldiers waiting to deploy to war from Tampa saw photographs of water skiers on the lake at the park, and they mistakenly believed that water ski shows were part of the entertainment offered there. When a small group soldiers arrived at the park, ready to pay the entrance fee to watch the water ski show, Julie Pope rounded up her children, Dick Jr. and Adrienne, and their friends, and staged an impromptu water skiing exhibition. It was a success, and the next weekend, 800 more soldiers arrived to see the show. From that point on, water ski shows were a staple of the Cypress Gardens brand.
Dick Pope worked tirelessly to promote his theme park and produced over 500 news reels and 75 short films to promote the park. In the 1970s, Cypress Gardens purchased Magnolia Mansion, a New Orleans style mansion built on Lake Eloise by citrus magnate, John A. Snively. At its height, Cypress Gardens was nationally famous and was used as a set location for a variety of films, including Moon Over Miami and various television programs
The impact of Dick Pope on Florida tourism can be hardly understated. He referred to himself as the “Grand Poobah of Publicity” and through his efforts, the image of Florida as a playground for sun and fun spread around the world. He is credited with single-handedly re-vitalizing Florida tourism after the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II. Cypress Gardens, helped to establish central Florida as the dominant area in the world for theme parks.