The Business of

Tourism: Water Skiing in Winter Haven

100 Years Later, the Impact of Water-Skiing Continues

By Mark Jackson

It grew from one man’s dream on a Minnesota lake to a Hollywood darling, from a pastime to a sport, and changed the economic landscape of a state half a nation away. Entwined like roses, the story of water-skiing must include not only Florida’s first theme park, but the lasting impact the sport continues to have on the Sunshine State and the nation, even 100 years after its birth.

The sport of water-skiing started when a young thrill-seeker, Ralph Samuelson, decided he wanted to skitter across Lake Pepin on skis instead of the then-standard board. After days of trial and error, all young Samuelson had gained was a crowd from Lake City who watched his efforts while safe and dry on shore.

But not so far away that he couldn’t hear them.

The mocking stopped on July 2, 1922, when Samuelson glided across the lake, upright on his skis. When he got to shore, the crowd gathered around him, begging him to teach them how to do it. And thus, after nearly a week of trial and error, a new pastime was born.

It was almost 25 years later when Dick Pope Sr. returned home after serving the nation during World War II and learned that his wife, Julie, had added a water-ski show to their lakeside botanical theme park, Cypress Gardens.

Pope not only embraced the idea but doubled down on it. Using cutting-edge technology, Pope created newsreels featuring the daredevils of Cypress Gardens. In no time, Winter Haven was “the water sports center of the United States” with Lake Eloise becoming the equivalent of the sport’s Lambeau Field or Fenway Park.

Developed into a competitive sport just a few years earlier, and boosted through Pope’s marketing, water-skiing brought international attention to both the sport and the theme park. This attention, in turn, fueled greater levels of competition and improved the skill of the competitors. The stunts got bigger, the speeds faster and the distances longer. Innovations included human pyramids, clowns, titanic ski jumps and crafty inventions, such as Willa Cook’s swivel ski.

All the activity soon caught the eye of Hollywood and was captured in the 1953 Esther Williams movie Easy to Love, filmed at Cypress Gardens and featuring the sport’s stunts and performers. As the years passed, television often used Cypress Gardens as a backdrop – and world-famous celebrities took to the water during the massive water-ski spectacles.

In short, when partnered with the Popes’ ceaseless and inventive marketing campaigns, water-skiing and Florida tourism came of age together. Intertwined, they transformed the image of the Sunshine State from the marshes, swamps, and cowboys of yesterday to the playground for sun and fun of today.

The relationship continues. In Florida, as we approach the sport’s July 2 centennial celebration, water-skiers still perform on Lake Eloise, where Cypress Gardens was replaced by LEGOLAND Florida 10 years ago. While the original theme park might be gone, tourism is the number one industry in the Sunshine State, cementing Pope’s legacy.

As for water-skiing, today it constitutes a healthy portion of an estimated $42 billion industry, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. We like to think we get more than our fair share of that business here in Central Florida’s Polk County, where we’re blessed with more than 500 lakes ringed with restaurants featuring dockside dining as well as water-ski schools staffed by those same Cypress Gardens water-skiers of lore.

Polk County will highlight the unique marriage of Pope’s legacy and the sport during the upcoming yearlong centennial celebration of the creation of water-skiing. At least 10 different sanctioned water-ski events featuring every discipline known in the sport will take place in Polk County this year, including the July 2 Water Ski Extravaganza by the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team on Lake Silver in Winter Haven.

The events culminate in the Oct. 22-23 International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation’s World Water Ski Show Tournament, also on Lake Silver. Held every two years, the event features the best show ski teams in the world, who gather to perform one-hour spectaculars that combine entertainment with world-class athletics. The USA Water Ski Show Team has won the team title at each annual event. Other teams expected to participate include Belgium, Canada, Germany, Australia, China, and Mexico.

Bringing the event to Polk County was a joint effort between the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team and Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. It was only right that they would bring the biennial world championships to the Water Ski Capital of the World. Assistance from USA Water Ski and Wake Sports, the national governing body of organized water-skiing and wakeboarding in the United States, was also instrumental.

New disciplines and techniques continue to evolve from the old. Thanks to advances in technology, the sport is far more accessible today than ever. Cable parks – think of ski gondolas without the gondolas – have opened the doors to the boatless. Other advances have made the sport a favorite among people with disabilities, including blind surfer, wakeboarder, water-skiier and Ironman competitor Scott Leason.

And who knows — perhaps someone in the crowd, watching an athlete glide across Lake Silver, will start to dream. What are dreams if not the inspiration for innovation? Central Florida’s Polk County welcomes the world to join us in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the sport that defines the Sunshine State: water-skiing.

Mark Jackson is the director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. A former professional water-skier at Cypress Gardens, he continues to contribute to the sport as a color commentator on numerous broadcasts

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