Flamboyant Founder of Cypress Gardens Dies At 87
Jan. 30, 1988
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) _ Richard Downing Pope Sr., who built Cypress Gardens park and paved the way for Florida's development as a tourist haven has died at his home. He was 87.
Pope, who died Thursday of undisclosed causes, built his Cypress Gardens park - Florida's first major tourist attraction - on 16 acres of swampland in 1936, when Walt Disney still was known as an animator. Walt Disney Co. now runs Walt Disney World in Florida.
Former Disney vice president William Potter recalled Pope as one of the few Florida tourism leaders who understood the impact Walt Disney World would have.
''He thought that Disney would be the best thing in the world,'' Potter said. ''He thought it would make more people come here.''
''He set the stage for the exposure of Florida worldwide,'' said Jo Farmer, executive director of the Osceola County Convention and Visitors Bureau. ''There wasn't any place in the world you could go and not hear about Florida. He pretty much wrote the book.''
Pope, born in Des Moines, Iowa, moved with his family to Florida in 1908. When the Great Depression ended his real estate career, he targeted fledgling Johnson Seahorse Outboard Motor Co. of Racine, Wis., as the place he wanted to work.
With no job interview scheduled, he drove from Florida to Wisconsin, stopping frequently to bombard the company with telegrams heralding the imminent arrival of ''the world's greatest publicity man.''
He got the job. But soon, prompted by a magazine article about a South Carolina banker who earned $36,000 in three months by charging $2 a head to see his landscaped estate, Pope switched careers.
Cypress Gardens began charging 25 cents for admission to its botanical garden. In the next three decades it became known as lush backdrop for waterskiing exhibitions and movies featuring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas and Van Johnson.
''He was just a genius, at creating an event where no event existed,'' said Orlando publicist Joe Curley. ''I remember him being the next best thing to P.T. Barnum.''
When Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. bought Cypress Gardens in August 1985, the atrraction was valued at $23 million. The 223-acre complex now admits about a million tourists yearly.
Pope is survived by wife, Julie; son, Richard Jr.; and daughter, Adrienne Watkins; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Funeral services were scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Winter Haven, with burial to follow in Lakeside Memorial Park.