Before Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, and before Florida earned the badge of world’s number-one tourist destination, the roadside attraction was king. Dotting the landscape from Jacksonville to Miami and all throughout the peninsula, small roadside zoos and animal encounters capitalized on the wildness of the Sunshine State. Now, many of those attractions, once the backdrop of countless family vacation photos, have been lost to development projects, strip malls and widened roads. But in the heart of Bonita Springs, tucked along Old U.S. 41, the Everglades Wonder Gardens has seemingly stood the test of time, though its future was not always so clear—and still isn’t.
Originally opened in 1936 by Bill and Lester Piper, Everglades Wonder Gardens was a roadside zoo filled with animals such as panthers, bears and otters, while a backdrop of exotic foliage gave this quaint attraction a tropical jungle feel. Over time, the animals became the main attraction, overtaking the tropical garden aesthetic. But the property’s small footprint—just two and half acres—was unsuitable for large, open animal enclosures. Quite frankly, the small and tight confines were rather cruel.
The property remained in the Piper family until April 2013, when, because of health reasons, the park closed. Destined to be another victim of slash-and burn-development, photographer John Brady stepped in to revive the roadside relic and save it from becoming just another condominium.
“This is a piece of Florida history, a landmark kind of location, and a piece of Americana,” said Brady as we toured the facility in late 2013. “I negotiated a lease so I could get things established on the property, and try to form a not-for-profit.”
To justify taking on such a large undertaking, Brady uses part of the main building as a gallery for his large-scale photography pieces. Called the Everglades Gallery, the name is appropriate for his stunning landscape shots capturing sunsets cast against old-growth cypress, mangrove islets amid the vastness of the sea and the oft-times desolate landscape of the Everglades itself.
And though the Piper family maintained the park well into 2013, when Brady took over last June, things were in dire need of some TLC. Deciding not to include mammals in the rebooted version of the Everglades Wonder Gardens, Brady and company focused on birds, reptiles and the exotic and tropical foliage that has been on property for generations, though seemingly hidden in plain sight.
“We wanted to transition it into something more current and more palatable for today and found that in the botanical gardens that were already here. Bill and Lester Piper planted things from all over the world on this property; exotic fruit and hardwood trees, jungle plants … they created a real jungle here,” says Brady, who took two weeks to just clear out old debris and enclosures to open the space up and unearth the natural gems, much of which is used to help sustain the park’s growing food demands. Fruit harvested from the park’s “hundreds” of fruit trees are used to feed the resident turtles, chickens and parrots.
“We peeled back the gardens. We cleaned things up, hoed things out, removed some of the fencing and structure where it was not needed. But we kept a lot of the historic structures and repurposed them. [For example], the mountain lion enclosure is now a butterfly garden.”
A lot of what made the Everglades Wonder Gardens such a quaint place—the close encounters with animals, the funky layout, the eclectic collection of plants and animals—has remained. The alligator lagoon was cleaned up and repopulated with 40 new adolescent alligators—some of the most active I have ever seen in captivity. A large collection of birds, from wood and Mandarin ducks, to fancy chickens, golden pheasants and rescued parrots, give the property a wild soundtrack, while the flamingo pond is home to the only flock of flamingoes in Southwest Florida. New gardens dot the locale, repurposing and up-cycling old animal enclosures. And though some spots and enclosures still remain empty, the place is a work in progress.
“Right now, this place needs a lot more than what we have done,” admits Brady, who has taken a place from the brink and brought it back to a lively new destination. “We got it revived, pumped a little life into it to get it going, but I have bigger plans for the place.”
Seeking not-for-profit status, Brady has begun the process of creating a board and has even sought the help of Ellie Krier, the woman who helped the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens obtain its nonprofit status in 2004, to help with the transition.
“The goal is to save this place, keep it from becoming condos or a shopping center, because that’s what will happen,” says Brady. “I am hoping to get this up and running, and get this land purchased. I won’t be an owner, it will be a public charity. Right now its my project, but it will become someone else’s project. And I am ready for that; that’s what we are trying to get to. And we are very close to it.”
Now visitors can revisit this old slice of Paradise Coast lore and reconnect with the past while helping preserve it for the future.
- Admission is $12 for adults.
- For more information, visit evergladeswondergardens.net.
Photography provided by John Brady.