WINTER HAVEN, Fla.,—For years Winter Haven Florida, basked in the attention of the state’s original theme park Cypress Gardens. When the park fell on hard times in 2005, the central Florida city of about 40,000 residents was worried.
Winter Haven now heaps praise on the theme park that caters to the under-12 age range and has become an active partner of the community.
“Disney came in and sucked up all the tourists from all the other little theme parks, the mom and pop theme parks around the state,” said Merle Bishop, planning director for Winter Haven.
He was referring to Disneyland, which is just about 30 miles away from Legoland.
Legoland Florida arrived in 2010. Because of Disney and Universal megaparks, Bishop said there was already a lot of interest in growth and development in the area.
“When Legoland came, it really caused a lot of people to say, ‘This is a good area to invest [in],’ ” he said.
Bishop said Merlin Entertainments PLC, the parent company of Legoland, asked for and received tax breaks and some subsidies. According to The Ledger, a local newspaper, the public-private Central Florida Tourism and Sports Marketing created a package of incentives that promised up to $5 million over 10 years to Merlin for choosing Polk County where Winter Haven is located.
Until 2015, the park was governed by Polk County and the county has tied its tourism industry to Legoland’s success. Gary White, a reporter for the ledger, said in an email that under the marketing partnership arrangement, Polk’s tourism agency will pay Merlin $350,000 a year for 10 years.
“The company also will be eligible for up to $150,000 a year for a decade through the Polk County Business Incentive program,” White said, “which rewards new businesses that pay at least 115 percent of average county wages.”
Bishop said the company received monetary help from the county to realign its parking lot and move a road, which Bishop estimated was less than $10 million. “They got a tax exemption from the county for a conservation overlay on a portion of the historic [Cypress] Garden area,” he said.
Traffic, Water, Noise
Cypress Garden Boulevard, a four-lane state road, is the main thoroughfare that leads to the park. Traffic congestion is less of a problem at the park than it is in the downtown area, according to Bishop. “Traffic moves through that area,” he said.
Bishop said the park did some signalization along the boulevard, which the state contributed to. He also said the state paid for the realignment of the road with some monies from the county.
The park has always received its water from the city, for fire protection as well as drinking water. Bishop said there is enough for everyone. “We get our water from wells that are in the Floridian aquifer,” he said. “Right now we have plenty capacity to serve them.”
Robert Clayton, a retired fire chief from a nearby county who now works for the park, said they have a very good working relationship with Winter Haven and Polk County. He said the county, with a fire station across the street from the park, provided fire protection before the city annexed Legoland.
He said there has never been a fire at the park. “Merlin is about safety, safety, safety,” he said, and has the proper equipment to protect the property.
The park went an extra step to reduce noise for its immediate neighbors reported White in a Ledger story in 2012. The neighbors in fact claim their area is more pleasant than it was during the era of Cypress Gardens.
“Residents of about eight houses on East Lake Summit Drive and Old Helena Road say the response of Legoland’s management to their noise concerns reflects a drastic change from the actions of the property’s previous owners,” White wrote.
Park management created an 8-foot wooden fence as part of a sound-suppressing boundary along the perimeter.
Bishop said he is familiar with the area around the park. “I haven’t heard one single complaint from any residents about Legoland.”
Bishop estimates the park’s value at around $52 million. “We estimated that they would generate about a half million dollars a year in taxes to the city,” he said. He had no figures for revenue to the local school district.
The city has recently launched its Turn Left campaign to link the tourist activity at Legoland with the downtown. “If [tourists] come from Orlando to Legoland for a day trip, when they leave they turn right. We want them to turn left,” Bishop said.
Bishop said Winter Haven embraced Legoland from the start. “If there was organized opposition, I’m not aware of it.”
He is a strong supporter of the city’s largest commercial resident. “Legoland, I will tell you without question, is a fantastic community partner. We could not ask for a better community partner.”
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(Full disclosure: Merlin Entertainments paid this reporter’s travel and accommodations for the visit.)