Cypress Gardens Water Ski Show: Pageantry on the Water
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
Pageantry on water — the Cypress Gardens water ski show wowed tourists for more than half a century until its run ended in the early 2000s.
Even with new incarnations of the park and then the opening of Legoland Florida in its place, the water ski show, as millions of visitors knew it, appeared gone forever.
That was until a group of former water skiers revived the show in 2012 and established the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team. Today, with a training program to teach the next generation of water ski performers, the show lives on.
Performed once a month on Lake Silver in Winter Haven, the Cypress Gardens water ski show captures the artistry of ballet, the athleticism of sports and showmanship of a big top circus. A combination of elegance, speed and power, the show appeals to people of all ages.
Instead of a grandstand, the new show is performed in front of people on blankets and lawn chairs. Still, the performances include all the elements of the shows of the past.
“We’re trying to continue the legacy that is Cypress Gardens,” says Mark Voisard, former show director at Cypress Gardens and president of the water ski team.
The show was born in the 1940s, during the time of grand Hollywood and Broadway productions. The genesis for the original show reportedly grew out of an effort to correct a mistake. According to Roadside America, Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope was serving in World War II when soldiers on leave saw a local newspaper photo of a water skier and mistakenly believed Cypress Gardens featured a “water show.”
Pope’s wife gathered her children and friends to perform for the men. Word spread about the show and drew 800 solders the following week.
By the 1950s and 60s, the water ski show was the main attraction at Cypress Gardens. The park became known as “Water Ski Capital of the World.”
During this pre-Disney World era, Cypress Gardens was one of Florida’s biggest theme parks. People came to see world-class skiers perform daredevil tricks and also Aquamaids in dazzling costumes. The show’s signature human pyramids graced postcards all over the state.
Post Disney, attendance slowed. The Pope family sold Cypress Gardens to publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1985. The park changed hands several times before closing in 2009.
Sadly, Cypress Gardens joined the list of defunct Central Florida tourist attractions. Its demise can be read online among the obituaries for closed theme parks such as Six Gun Territory, Boardwalk and Baseball, and Circus World.
The famed water ski show died, too.
The idea to resurrect the show came in 2012.
“We were asked to do a show for one of our former skiers, a guy named Don Thomson, who was being given an award of distinction from USA Water Ski,” says Voisard. “Someone says hey, why don’t we put on a show for him? So we did. We put in a jump. We flew kites, barefooted, put in a pyramid… we did the whole cha-bang.”
After their tribute show, they decided to perform on a regular basis. They worked out a deal with the City of Winter Haven to perform free shows every third Saturday at Lake Silver.
“It’s basically an amateur club,” he says. “We are attempting to teach the young people what we know. So that when they get to be 16, 18 or 20, they get to do what we’re doing so we can set back and watch.”
They hold “learn to ski” days every other month and have more than 45 kids on the WIP (work in progress) team.
The response to the training program has been so popular that they’ve had to freeze registration until June.
“It’s been awesome. It’s crazy,” Voisard says. “Crazy but great.”
Stacey Brinkerhoff, who performed at Cypress Gardens during the late 1980s and early 1990s, says she helps to train the young skiers.
“They have been unbelievably inspiring to us seasoned veterans. I can’t sing their praises enough.”
Brinkerhoff remembers applying and auditioning several times to join the Cypress Gardens show.
“Skiers would hangout, ski for free, anything to be part of the show with these world-class athletes,” Brinkerhoff says.
Although Legoland Florida includes a water ski show, it’s performed with skiers in oversized costumes made to look like Lego characters. That show appeals to the theme park’s primary audience, children ages 2 to 12.
“Our show was built on years of a certain level of expertise and professionalism and upon decades of hard work,” says Brinkerhoff. “It was about precision.”
In March, the show drew nearly 800 people to Lake Silver. They were treated to barefoot skiers, high-speed acrobatics, and of course, the lovely Aquamaids.
During the show, an announcer gave the audience a brief history of the Cypress Gardens ski show.
Since the show’s return, former members have jumped at the chance to reconnect.
“Everybody enjoys it. It brings back lots of memories,” says Voisard. “We’ve got some people who never really left it. They still do traveling shows all over the world. We’ve got other people who had been gone almost 20 years and they’re back skiing and loving it.”