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Sale of Cypress Gardens Completed

The Ledger

Original Article »

October 17, 2007

WINTER HAVEN | The $16.8 million bankruptcy sale of Cypress Gardens Adventure Park is a done deal, one of its new owners said Tuesday.

"We're ecstatic," Brian Philpot said late Tuesday.

Philpot said he and his partner, Robert Harper IV, are "committed to the long haul" to building the business at Cypress Gardens.

The park was sold by Georgia's Adventure Parks Group to Mulberry-based Land South Holdings.

The new owners plan to keep the park open under a company called Land South Adventures and will also keep Kent Buescher, the former owner, as the park's CEO.

Buescher said he understands the speculation that the new park owners will try to develop the land into something other than Cypress Gardens, but said that rumor is "flat-out wrong."

The speculation is fueled by Harper and Philpot's history of flipping large pieces of land for sizable profit.

First and foremost, Buescher said, is that the state has restrictions on all 150 acres of the property, not just the original 30 acre-tract of Cypress Gardens.

He said the property-wide restrictions prohibit any development - including residential - other than for a park.

"It can't be done," he said.

"It would virtually take an act of the Legislature or the governor and the Cabinet to change that," he said. "There is no sinister motive in (Philpot and Harper) buying the park. That's ridiculous."

Buescher bought Cypress Gardens in 2004 for $7 million with help from the state and Polk County in a deal arranged by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation group, from local developer Larry Maxwell.

Land South, owned by Philpot and Harper, bought the oldest theme park in the state for $16.8 million at a bankruptcy auction in Macon, Ga. That money will go toward paying Buescher's creditors.

The real estate closing was finalized Tuesday in a series of Internet transfers between people in Atlanta, Macon and Valdosta in Georgia and in Winter Haven and Mulberry.

Buescher said Cypress Gardens can and will be a "very viable business."

Buescher said the company is examining its prices. An adult admission to the park is now $44.95, and Buescher said that price may be subject to change.

Cypress Gardens now will make a go of it unburdened by the debt that saddled Buescher. He said many things went right at Cypress Gardens the past several years, but he was never able to shake the multi-million-dollar debt the park incurred during the three hurricanes that hit Polk County in August and September 2004 as the park was preparing to open.

When he bought Cypress Gardens in 2004, Buescher owned Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Ga., which he had built from scratch.

He put the two parks under a parent company, Adventure Parks Group LLC.

But after the hurricanes, a fight with his insurance company and some problems with the Georgia park, Buescher ended up about $135 million in debt and sold the two parks as part of the parent company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Land South Holdings was the only bidder for Cypress Gardens, while Wild Adventures was bought by Herschend Family Entertainment of Missouri for $34.5 million.

About 700 employees work at Cypress Gardens, while Wild Adventures employs a similar number.

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