by Jane Bianchi | November 24, 2016

Floridiana: Skis Please!

Making a splash with water-friendly wooden treasures from Florida’s former top tourist destination.

Dick pope skis

Dick Pope Jr. vintage skis are available online at Ebay and Etsy. Photography by Jessie Preza

Picture a five-level pyramid of peppy, smiling men and women, stacked foot-to-shoulder. No, it’s not an SEC cheerleading stunt; it’s a moving wall of colorfully clad waterskiers, traveling 24 miles per hour around a lake at the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Review in Winter Haven.

This marvelous mobile formation was just one of the daredevil tricks that made waves for more than 50 million fans from 1943 through 2009, when the park splashed down and became Legoland Florida.

The iconic water ski show sprang forth from the late Dick Pope, a short, flamboyant man known for wearing flowered jackets because, he joked, he didn’t want to be mistaken for a fire hydrant. Dubbed “Mr. Florida” in 1952 by the publisher of the Orlando Sentinel, Pope was a brilliant publicist. He sent press releases to newspapers nationwide, filled a Florida-shaped pool on park grounds with oranges for a photo op, and took his ski show international, traveling to Brazil and performing in Jordan for the king’s birthday.

Capitalizing on his father’s popular show, in the 1950s Dick Pope Jr. opened a water ski factory a few miles from Cypress Gardens. The skis—wooden, flat with a user-friendly adjustable binder—were a hit, selling about 1 million per year at the company’s peak.

Time wasn’t kind to the Gardens. By the early 1970s, Cypress Gardens lost visitors to the commercially-jacked-up parks in Orlando.

In 2004 it was walloped by three hurricanes. After the park finally closed five years later, Mark Voisard, 62, a former Cypress Gardens skier and show director, wasn’t ready to let go of the rope. In 2012, he persuaded some former Pope stars to perform gratis at Lake Silver in Winter Haven. They outfitted themselves with locally made replicas of Pope Jr.’s wooden originals and rebranded as the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team. Today they put on a show every third Saturday of the month.

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