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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Cypress Gardens: New owner promises rejuvenation

WINTER HAVEN, Florida -- The new owner of Cypress Gardens, one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions, is promising to rejuvenate the park of botanical gardens and water ski shows with new thrill rides and a water park to appeal to younger visitors.

In late February, Kent Buescher, owner of Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., closed on the 68-year-old property in a complex real estate arrangement involving a nonprofit conservation group and state and local lawmakers. Government officials came up with funding for part of the deal in response to a grassroots save-the-park movement involving thousands of letters, e-mails and visits to Tallahassee by Cypress Garden's trademark "Southern belles."

"Today we took another step forward to rejuvenate and reopen this beloved jewel of Florida history and Florida tourism," Buescher said.

The park's new name, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, captured what will be Buescher's efforts to expand the park's demographic appeal beyond senior citizens to include families with children. Buescher said he plans to invest $35 million in a new water park and more than 30 rides, including several roller coasters.

But the park still will appeal to senior citizens, he said.

"We can't run off one single guest," Buescher said.

The park could reopen by Memorial Day.

Anticipating the reopening, Carolina Beleut, 29, already is making the hoop-skirt dresses worn by the Southern belles who populated the park. Beleut, who sometimes works as a Southern belle herself, can make a dress every two days. Most of the park's 150 dresses were sold after it closed last April due to declining attendance.

"Change is good," said Beleut, dressed in a blood-red hoop skirt for a news conference announcing the sale. "They need to bring in young people. They need to bring in families."

Beleut and a former co-worker, Angela Yauchler, described themselves as "devastated" after the park closed.

"We're such a close family," said Yauchler, who wore a pink hoop skirt. "It was like a funeral when it closed."

Both women hope to get their old jobs back. Buescher said he plans to hire 500 people and will give former workers top priority.

The park closed in April after struggling with declining attendance that only reached only 700,000 annually in its last years. Buescher said it needs to attract more than 1 million people a year to be profitable, but he added he didn't expect to break even for another 11/2 years.

To help bring back visitors, the park's adult admission price will be $26.95, or about $8 less than the previous price. Children's admission will be $22.95 and second day admission will be free.

Under the $20.5 million real estate arrangement orchestrated by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation group, Buescher paid $7 million for 120 acres of the park. The Polk County Commission paid $2.5 million for the park's 30-acre historic core, and the state of Florida purchased an $11 million conservation easement.

Cypress Gardens was opened in 1936 by Dick and Julie Pope, who were pioneers of Florida's tourism industry.

Civic leaders hope the new ownership not only injects new blood into the park but the surrounding community. Polk County, which for decades was dominated by the Old Florida heritage of the citrus and cattle industries, has struggled to find an identity as nearby Tampa and Orlando have exploded into tourism meccas.

"When Cypress Gardens closed, it shut the door on Old Polk County and opened the door to a new Polk County," said Jeff Potter, a city commissioner for Winter Haven, located about 35 miles southwest of Orlando.

With its planned water park, Cypress Gardens can attract year-round visitors from surrounding areas rather than relying on the elderly, snowbird tourists who were the park's bread and butter, Potter said.

"This area has been trying to find an identity for years," he said.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Travel recovery hopes in Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary (Reuters) -- The country's travel and tourism slump may be on the turn, with a five percentage point jump in hotel occupancy rates in January-February to 41 percent.

This confirms industry expectations for a recovery this year and helping the current account balance.

Data from the Central Statistics Office (KSH) on Monday showed the number of guest nights rose 20 percent year-on-year during the period, and gross revenue per room jumped 23 percent to 5,000 forints ($23.80).

"The data basically confirms what we started to see in the last quarter of 2003 -- that the economic cycle has begun a rise again and gives us decent hopes for the entire year," said Peter Wolff, head of the Hungarian Hotel Association.

"Most notably, data for three-and four-star hotels (which account for the bulk of revenues) are better than the average."

Wolff said early signs from tour operators and major hotels indicated a boost in conference tourism this year.

Hungary is one of 10 states due to join the European Union in May, and Budapest has beefed up its facilities to try and raise its profile as a central European conference centre.

"I wouldn't venture into a growth forecast for the year, but many in the industry expect full-year growth around eight to 10 percent," Wolff said.

One sector analyst said that kind of increase would be very good news for Hungary, both for foreign currency revenues and, more importantly, for the current account balance.

"An 8-10 percent rise in tourism revenues alone means a 220-280 million euro improvement in the current account balance," said Gyorgy Kovacs, analyst at DZ Bank.

"We probably can't expect such an improvement because Hungarians travelling abroad also influence the balance," he added. "But, overall, this is welcome news as tourism revenues last year were well below 2002 levels."

Kovacs said a 20 percent rise in January-February guest nights reflected a very low base figure, due to global travel fears early last year amid the SARS outbreak in Asia and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Tourism accommodation revenues edged up by two percent last year to 163.7 billion forints, while average 2003 inflation was 4.7 percent.

Hungary's current account ran a deficit of 4.2 billion euros in 2003 against 2.77 billion in 2002. The finance ministry expects a "significant improvement" this year.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

'Raymond' to Return for Shortened Final Season

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's finally come down to the money part of the equation for the fate of CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Sources say that series creator Phil Rosenthal and star Ray Romano have agreed to keep at it for a ninth season, albeit at less than a full 22-episode order. The trick now is whether CBS can work out new salary deals at shortened-season rates for Romano, who currently ranks as primetime's highest-paid star at nearly $2 million per episode, and co-stars Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday about CBS' February sweep performance, CBS chief Leslie Moonves would only say that he's "very guardedly optimistic" that the network's top-rated sitcom will be back next season.

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