2017-08-10 / Top News

WONDER GARDEN BLOOMS

Iconic Everglades Wonder Gardens is reinvented into a new attraction, saved by the city of Bonita Springs
BY NANCI THEORET
Florida Weekly Correspondent

GIANT REPTILIAN EYES SURVEY NEW arrivals from the rooftop, almost daring visitors to enter the historic downtown Bonita Springs building shrouded by fencing and flora that prevent any sneak peeks inside. Parrots and parakeets squawk and screech their own sort of welcome. Inside the landmark Everglades Wonder Gardens other birds join the chorus; one even mimics the laugh of a former employee. Not to be outdone, a free-roaming peacock chimes in with his distinct meowmonkey voice.

Welcome to old Florida and one of the state’s oldest surviving roadside attractions. Near death but saved by a community and city that rallied to the rescue.

On this July afternoon, heavy rains have subsided and shades of green spanning the full spectrum of greenness cloak the garden’s 3.5 acres. A sprinkling of red and yellow blooms adds the exclamation point to the greenery and new blooms seem ready to unfurl any moment.


Watchful eyes overlook the parking lot at Everglades Wonder Gardens, a Bonita Springs landmark since 1936. 
COURTESY PHOTO Watchful eyes overlook the parking lot at Everglades Wonder Gardens, a Bonita Springs landmark since 1936. COURTESY PHOTO The sun is working to burn off the remaining clouds; water droplets on leaves shimmer in the gaining light. Banyan branches and untamed vines drape overhead, gnarly and twisting on their downward plunge.

Guests have returned to the pathways, enjoying the shade provided by a dense botanical canopy. They visit enclosures with turtles, monitor and tegu lizards, gators, boas and birds, many of them former pets.

The rain has chased day campers inside to a classroom in the welcome center, where they’re painting leafs and learning about some of the hundreds of plants flourishing throughout the gardens.

A nearby room retains the former attraction’s kitsch, recalling a laboratory frozen in time with its specimen jars of coiled snakes, skulls and skeletons suspended in clear liquid. Also lining the shelves are historical artifacts and other curiosities that have awed visitors since brothers Bill and Lester Piper opened their Reptile Gardens along the new Tamiami Trail in 1936. A small bear and other taxidermy animals join Big Joe, a former resident who at 15.5 feet long was once the supreme ruler of gatordom — the largest in the world.


Above: A photo from the 1940s shows Lester and Bill Piper with Queenie at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. At right: A postcard of Bill Piper with Tom the bear. Above: A photo from the 1940s shows Lester and Bill Piper with Queenie at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. At right: A postcard of Bill Piper with Tom the bear. The Piper family legacy

Nestled along the Imperial River, the garden’s fern and bromeliad gardens, signature banyan trees and plants (some only seen here in Southwest Florida) create a tropical oasis in the heart of Bonita Springs. A Garden of Eden almost lost to development when third-generation David Piper, Lester’s son, listed the property for sale in 2013.


STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA He was no longer able to keep up with the maintenance and care of a small menagerie of otters, bears, big cats and other animals, said former Bonita Springs Councilwoman Janet Martin. After two years he had a buyer, “a real estate developer anxious to get ahold of riverfront property,” she said.

But Mr. Piper gave the city an opportunity.

“We were trying to bring people downtown with our $18 million downtown revitalization,” recalled Ms. Martin. “How could we let the Wonder Gardens go? The council recognized it really was a draw. It brings people downtown. It was an easy decision.”

The city council voted unanimously in 2015 to purchase the property for $3.5 million, turning over operations and repayment to the nonprofit Bonita Wonder Gardens, a foundation formed by local Everglades photographer John Brady who Ms. Martin credits as the unsung hero in the gardens’ next chapter


Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens opened in 1936 to serve as a refuge for injured animals. The name was later changed to Everglades Wonder Gardens. 
STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens opened in 1936 to serve as a refuge for injured animals. The name was later changed to Everglades Wonder Gardens. STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA “As we develop, we bulldoze everything,” Ms. Martin said. “He saw potential and a vision beyond just animal in cages. He was leasing the property, pouring money into restoring it and knew any day it could have been sold.”

Mr. Brady recognized the potential for a destination “other than a stinky old zoo. This was a piece of Florida history that was going to be lost,” Mr. Brady said. “Some people had given up and had no interest in bringing it back to life. They didn’t understand the importance of the property.”

He formed the nonprofit and rallied businesses, residents and the city to the rescue. “We inspired folks to step up and get involved. Without the city, the property wouldn’t be there.”


HECKER HECKER “It was John’s idea for reptiles and birds and never again having big panthers or bears in little cage,” said Ms. Martin. “The Wonder Gardens is known for its gators; there was no reason to bring in large mammals. It was an awesome idea and we ran with it.”

“No one wants a tiny stinky little zoo,” Mr. Brady said. “It’s not ethical and we knew what we were not going to be. People love it because it’s so approachable. They can push a stroller around and not be worn out.”

‘It gets under your skin’

Ms. Martin, who termed out in 2016, was known for her environmental advocacy and served 18 months as the garden’s operations manager, focusing on improvements and segueing away from mammals to a rescue sanctuary for birds and reptiles.


On the wish list: A larger flock of flamingos, roseate spoonbills and pink blossomed plants for the flamingo pond. 
NANCY THEORET / FLORIDA WEEKLY On the wish list: A larger flock of flamingos, roseate spoonbills and pink blossomed plants for the flamingo pond. NANCY THEORET / FLORIDA WEEKLY “I worked seven days a week and loved it,” she said. “It gets under your skin. It’s just an awesome place to be. I was amazed during my first year we had 22,000 paying guests.”

Faced with an aggressive three-year pledge by the nonprofit to repay the city with interest and not enough contributions coming in, Ms. Martin realized there was something she wasn’t: a fundraiser.

“As much as I could tour guests around the gardens and share my love of it, it was a lot harder to raise funds than we thought. It doesn’t have the heartstrings attached to it like writing a check for a children’s hospital or a shelter unless people are really impassioned about it.

“We needed someone with boots on the ground who knows how to raise money,” she said. “I resigned. It was a hard decision, like cutting off my arms. For the gardens to succeed it wasn’t going to be me. I didn’t want the gardens to fail.”


Thomas Hecker shares a vision of the Wonder Gardens’ future. 
COURTESY PHOTO Thomas Hecker shares a vision of the Wonder Gardens’ future. COURTESY PHOTO Enter Thomas Hecker, a former botanist with the Naples Botanical Garden and the CEO of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, who was selected among 122 candidates to guide the next chapter.

With a background in environmental studies and horticulture, Mr. Hecker is in his element, his Eden. He’s a “plant guy” who marvels at the connection between people and plants and stops in the middle of a tour to inspect the installation of more foot-friendly gravel and ponders aloud the fate of a little green heron foraging along the banks of the gator pond. He was born for this. Growing up in Tampa, he had a backyard zoo and aviary.


Peacocks and peahens roam the gardens. 
NANCY THEORET / FLORIDA WEEKLY Peacocks and peahens roam the gardens. NANCY THEORET / FLORIDA WEEKLY Mr. Hecker also has big ideas.

In his office, where jalousie windows and creaking wood underfoot authenticate the age of the building, Mr. Hecker shares a vision of the Wonder Garden’s future — a poster-sized rendering showing tidy designated areas for a café, wedding gazebo and Hall of Wonders woven into the tapestry of existing flamingo and gator ponds and gardens. Its new emphasis on environment and education will someday include boat and kayak tours of the Imperial River.

That vision embraces the Pipers’ legacy without the mammals. It’s a politically correct version of the original roadside attraction; one Mr. Hecker prefers to call a “cultural icon.”

“No one wants to see a bear in a small cage.”

The world was a different place back when the Piper brothers started their little zoo and garden. Tourists were lured by the promise of real live alligators and other animals that slunk through the Florida wilderness. Until a few years ago visitors on a swinging bridge were wowed during gator feedings as the reptiles roiled in the water just feet below as they lunged for food.


A sign marking the attraction has been a familiar sight in Bonita Springs since 1936. A sign marking the attraction has been a familiar sight in Bonita Springs since 1936. The bridge posts are still in place and may one day be rebuilt. But that, too, takes funding. Mr. Hecker likes the idea of a zip line over the gator pond and allowing opportunities for gator fishing at an additional charge.

Vision for future grows

Other ideas flow in a stream of consciousness: a pollination pavilion, walkthrough aviaries and butterfly gardens and a tea and coffee house inside the four 420-square-foot donated French-style solariums. “Interacting, that’s a memory,” he said, noting the park often obliges requests to hold animals. “‘Immersive’ should be my middle name.”

A ramshackle space with a painted wooden portrait of one of the Pipers who remarkably resembles Juan Valdez of old TV commercials, could become an event and wedding space and the nearby animal prep kitchen upgraded to serve people.

Mr. Hecker also envisions opening the gardens for yoga and other community events and he’s intent on growing the gardens’ aging flamingo flock. He’d like to have 24 but a single bird can cost $5,000. It’s his duty to raise money by selling memberships, sourcing grants, sponsorships and philanthropic dollars to help repay the city loan while providing resources for upgrades.

Since taking the helm Jan. 3, Mr. Hecker has created a concept book based on his visits to zoos and botanical gardens throughout the world. Additional ideas will be unveiled following a board retreat in September. “We have a budget and we’re going to set our priorities,” Mr. Hecker said.

One of the inaugural fundraisers is Brew with the Birds, a Sept. 23 event offering samplings of homebrew and craft beers, musical entertainment and food trucks.

Today, Ms. Martin visits the gardens with her granddaughters and stops by the koi pond to visit with the fish that once swam in a pond at her house. Many of the birds recognize her, Kiwi still mimics her laugh. She’s pleased with the changes underway.

“We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go,” Mr. Brady said. “The future of the park is really exciting.”

About the only controversy surrounding the Wonder Gardens is fitting it into a category.

Mr. Hecker isn’t particularly fond of the “roadside attraction” moniker.

Mr. Brady respectfully disagrees. “It is a roadside attraction that’s been saved,” he said. “It opened in 1936. We can’t forget that but it doesn’t have to be what it was.”

Whatever it’s called, wherever the future takes it, “it’s the green beating heart of the city,” said Mr. Hecker. ¦

Everglades Wonder Gardens

Where: 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs

When: Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: $12.95 for adults, $10.95 for seniors and $7.95 for children 3-12

Info: 992-2591 or Evergladeswondergardens.com

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