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Longtime Old Florida attraction closes

5:18 AM, Apr 23, 2013   |    comments
(Photo: Kinfay Moroti, The News-Press, Fort Myers, Fla.)
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BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. - Hansel the otter earned his final applause as he dove for chunks of raw meat.

Tour guides' microphones boomed past sleeping black bears and coiled pythons.

Everglades Wonder Gardens owner David Piper watched guests plop down $15, one last time.

The animal sanctuary, one of the last Old Florida-style attractions in the state, closed its doors to the public Sunday after 77 years. Piper, who took over for his grandfather Lester in 1992, moved to Georgia to escape stress that aggravates an inoperable spine tumor.

"Really mixed emotions," Piper said while the first wave of guests began touring the grounds he swept when he was 4. "There's an old song that said 'Cowboys ain't supposed to cry.'"

When tallied, Sunday's visitors should be close to the record 965 guests the attraction drew on a single day in 2004. More than 800 visited Saturday.

Former employee John O'Kelly, 47, stopped by to say goodbye to his favorite parrot, Peanut, and the gators and bobcats he fed for nearly three decades.

"This place is lost in time," O'Kelly said. "There aren't too many places you can go that still look like they did 100 years ago."

Candace Mills, 56, of Naples, Fla., who first toured the gardens in 1983, came back for the first time in a decade. She peered through glass at the preserved body of Big Joe, a more than 1,200-pound crocodile who lived at the gardens for 67 years and died in 2003.

"I saw Big Joe when he was alive," Mills said. "I'm sorry to see this place go. ... I don't want it to be torn down for more growth."

While Piper zipped across the grounds, ushering a constant flood of tour-goers into the gardens, his wife, Dawn, tried to take it all in.

"It's surreal," she said. "The hardest part for me is watching my husband go through the roller coaster of emotions. He wanted to be here this morning to greet the first guest, and he's going to be here to greet the last."

By 5 p.m., a rooster's crow echoed across the quiet grounds while a handful of visitors took final loops past the enclosures. In the gift shop, Piper told a few bystanders about the time he "surfed" his favorite crocodile.

A woman paid for a late admission ticket. Piper didn't want to lock the doors yet, in case there were others.

He put a cellphone on speaker and called Tina Schucklat, a longtime area resident who visited the gardens as a child, to tell her he has decided to sell the property and wants to list it with her. Piper declined to say what the listing price might be.

On Monday, Piper is calling zoos and collectors interested in his animals and artifacts. A bidding battle has begun for his Florida crocodiles. A female can fetch about $15,000.

The owner of Alligator Adventure park in South Carolina is one of the latest potential buyers.

"He says our crocodiles are incredible - like special antique cars that have been kept in garages," Piper said.

In a few days, after some of the animals have been placed and more specimens and skulls have been sold, Piper will drive his Ford F250 back to Georgia with a few of Wonder Gardens' timber rattlesnakes in tow, and any other caged creatures he can wrangle across the state line.

He'll start small in Georgia, getting back to the work he knows best.

"Everybody knows up there that we rehabilitate animals," Piper said. "We're already getting calls."

Old Florida attractions

Like Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven and Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Everglades Wonder Gardens has closed up shop. But here are a few places in the Sunshine State where you still can get a taste of Old Florida and maybe a bit of kitsch.

• The Citrus Tower, Clermont, built in 1956.

• Coral Castle Museum, Homestead, moved from Florida City and reopened in 1940.

• Jungle Island, formerly Parrot Jungle, Miami, established 1936.

• Theater of the Sea, Islamorada, established 1946.

• Weeki Wachee Springs, Weeki Wachee, opened 1947.

Lindsay Downey, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

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