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Cypress Gardens to Be Sold

The Ledger

Original Article »

September 06, 2007

WINTER HAVEN | Hammered by three hurricanes in 2004 and a court battle with an insurance company, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park here and Wild Adventures park in Georgia will be put up for bids to satisfy the requirements of the 2006 Chapter 11 filing, according to the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.

The parks' owner, Adventures Parks Group, LLC, expects to sell the park on Sept. 25.

The U.S. District Court, Middle Court of Georgia, Valdosta Division will conduct the sale. There could be more than one bidder for a particular park, according to the Chamber.

Both parks will remain open, Kent Buescher, CEO of Adventure Parks Group, told the chamber.

Buescher said there would be no changes in employees and new events and programming would be forthcoming.

Annual passes will be honored and new passes will go on sale as usual in November, he said.

The chamber did not provide the name of the buyers.

Buescher bought the closed and run down Cypress Gardens in February 2004 in a complicated land deal that included $11 million in state money, as well as $7 million of his own.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Cabinet unanimously approved the deal in January 2004 to save the theme park.

The state paid $11 million for a conservation easement that essentially prevents development of the 150-acre park.

The easement was a critical part of a complicated plan that lead to a new private owner of the attraction, which opened in 1936 and earned an international reputation for its water-skiing shows, its botanical gardens, including a massive banyan tree, and its hoop skirt-wearing Southern Belles.

Cypress Gardens closed in April 2003 following slumping attendance at the park, which seemed to have become an anachronism in an era of mega-amusement parks like nearby Disney World and Busch Gardens.

But in a deal arranged by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation group, the park was sold to Buescher, president of the Wild Adventures theme park near Valdosta, Ga.

Buescher paid $7 million for the ownership of 120 acres, with TPL loaning him the money until he secured his own financing.

Additionally, Polk County has agreed to buy 30 acres, which include the original botanical gardens and water-skiing areas, for $2.5 million.

The entire park will be managed by Buescher, who promised to retain the classic features of the attraction, while promising to revamp the park to attract new visitors.

Since then, Buescher has added a water park, roller coasters and new entertainment events, among other changes.

When Buescher bought Cypress Gardens insured the new amusement park with the same insurance carrier -- Landmark American Insurance Co. -- that covered Wild Adventures, the Valdosta, Ga., amusement park he started from scratch in 1991.

Of course, he didn't know he would soon be filing a $24.8 million claim with Landmark for damages caused after three hurricanes swept through the area in August and September 2004 causing $30 million in insured and uninsured damage to his new park.

It was a triple blow that the park has not been able to recover from financially.

The park was originally scheduled to open as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in the spring of 2004, but construction delays pushed back the start date to September.

Then the hurricanes -- first Charley on Aug. 13, then Frances on Sept. 5 and finally Jeanne on Sept. 26 -- all hit within a six-week period.

After the storms, Landmark paid about $6.9 million before stopping further payments, leaving $17.9 million in unpaid claims.

Buescher said in a 2006 interview that the insurance company kept dragging its feet about sending out an inspector to look at damages.

''If we didn't get back to business, the park would have suffered even more financial losses,'' Buescher said.

The company assured him and his financing company that it would be all right to take pictures of damages and begin repairs.

After Buescher started making repairs and insurance inspectors visited the park, they questioned whether the repairs were really necessary to begin with, Buescher said.

Buescher no longer has insurance with Landmark and has found another carrier.

On Sept. 23, 2005, Buescher filed a lawsuit in Polk County Circuit Court for the unpaid claims.

Besides seeking further damages from the insurance company, financial troubles Buescher says were directly caused by the Landmark's refusal to settle the claims led to Buescher filing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in the U.S. Court's Middle District of Georgia on Monday.

After filing the petition for protection from creditors, Buescher also filed a budget with the federal court that includes $15 million in new financing he received from GE Capital, an investment bank, so he can continue operating and make repairs for storm damages that still have not been made.

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