Everglades Wonder Gardens & Its Iconic Flamingos
Roadside Attraction Reinvented
A roadside attraction—aka tourist trap—is becoming a cultural destination.
“The future is just so bright,” says Westley Weidenmiller, chairman of the Everglades Wonder Gardens’ nonprofit board for the city-owned property, which he calls “the heart of the community.” He gaped at the alligators as a child. “Now the old stinky zoo,” he says, “is becoming a beautiful garden with hands-on experiences and much more.”
He sees education as the driver. Trish Leonard agrees wholeheartedly. Leonard, a civic leader who served on the board for five years and donated to the gardens at a pivotal time as it transitioned from the founding Piper family to the city, wants more classes for children as well as adults about gardening and the environment in general.
Leonard, earning the title of president emeritus, also envisions a footbridge over the Imperial River to connect the gardens with Riverside Park to help visitors decide “I have to go there.”
Lots of guests already do, as the site set an attendance record of 60,000 last year—double the number of 2018.
Executive director Thomas Hecker (left), a veteran of the much larger Naples Botanical Garden during its formative years, points to a new master plan for exhibits and infrastructure, including wheelchair-friendly brick walkways, to keep the attendance numbers climbing.
The iconic flamingos, which guests are welcome to feed for only $1, play key roles. In 2020, the self-proclaimed Year of the Flamingo, the attraction will hold its annual gala—Enchanted Flamboyance—on February 20, and all proceeds will go to the gardens. Flamingo souvenirs such as T-shirts and calendars are earmarked for showcasing the brightly colored stars. Hecker even envisions a fundraising flamingo statue decoration contest for alumni of rival state universities. His goal: the nation’s No. 1 flamingo attraction. Other 2020 fundraising efforts include a group trip to the Galápagos Islands in May.Hecker heads into 2020 on a roll of good publicity from the debut of four miniature Victorian-style expo pavilions originally built for Euro Disney and donated by Naples Botanical Garden. Named sponsorships are going for $75,000 apiece. In October 2019 the Ernie & Sandie Schaub Butterfly and Orchid Pavilion (photo below) opened. The Robert & Karin Moe Tea House, designed for private special events and gatherings, opened in November, and the Terry & Arlene Riegel Lorikeet Pavilion, which will feature free-flying rainbow lorikeets, is expected to be ready by mid-January. The fourth, the Honeycreeper and Sunbird Pavilion, which will feature tropical pollinating birds, is still available for funding from interested benefactors.
The master plan has no timetable, other than Hecker’s determination to start projects as soon as donors come forward—now more likely as a result of the first big gifts, as was the experience at Naples Botanical Garden. To get it all done, he estimates, would cost $500,000—about 20 percent less than the annual budget, which covers 20 full- and part-time employees.
An overall theme to the Wonder Gardens mission is to freshen and upgrade the original animal display areas while respecting the community’s allegiance to nostalgia. An alligator area with a fountain and clear water promises to be a highlight—a definite upgrade from years of neglect. Hands-on is another emphasis—except for the gators and snakes.
Hecker is a tireless optimist. He sees the felling of nearly 100 trees by Hurricane Irma as serendipitous—instigating loads of cleanup work while giving the venue more sunlight and openness.
He also makes the most of what he has. “I see the potential,” as he puts it, envisioning a weathered, open-air storage barn becoming a “wonder” wedding party and corporate meeting center, and former employee housing turning into classrooms for summer camps and more.
All the animals on display, from macaws and iguanas to peacocks and parrots, are rescues. Hecker travels the state collecting the live donations.
He is dedicated to Trish Leonard’s dream of “saving the icon” so “kids can grow up with it.”
“What’s good for the Wonder Gardens,” she is convinced, “is good for downtown and the rest of the community.’’
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.