Everglades Wonder Gardens looks forward to expansion

Posted at 7:26 PM, Feb 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-16 19:26:29-05

The Everglades Wonder Gardens, which was saved from closing two years ago, is now looking toward expanding. The 81-year-old roadside attraction is getting some help Thursday from its second annual fundraiser.

"It was in danger of closing," said Bonita Springs city manager Carl Schwing. "It was under private ownership at the time."

That was the situation in early 2015, when the owners of the Wonder Gardens - which features displays of flamingos, alligators and other wildlife - decided they couldn't keep operating it. 

Then a nonprofit group led by Trish Leonard stepped up to buy the property, thanks to a $310,000 loan from the City of Bonita Springs. 

"We kind of got re-energized," said Leonard, president of the Bonita Wonder Gardens, the nonprofit group created to save the attraction. "If you see the beauty that we have here, there's just absolutely no way that you could just say good-bye."

"We are thrilled that a nonprofit organization, in partnership with the city, has been able to save this roadside attraction," Schwing said.

Another challenge for the Wonder Gardens - and many other businesses along Old 41 - is the road construction that's now into its second year.

"It has really put upon our businesses downtown in a difficult degree, because we've been under construction for at least a year and a half now," Schwing said. "We believe the long-term vision of the downtown is wonderful one, and we think that everyone will benefit once we get out of construction."

He said he considers the Everglades Wonder Gardens an "anchor" for downtown Bonita, meaning a place that visitors will be drawn to specifically.

Leonard said that the road construction hasn't stopped visitors from coming to the Wonder Gardens.

"It's a little tough to get in, but I think the people who really want to come to the Everglades Wonder Gardens are finding their way here," she said.

Leonard and other volunteers spent Thursday getting set up for their second annual fundraiser, which she said should help the park expand with such features as a children's discovery area, environmental learning center, and eco-tours by boat on the Imperial River, which adjoins the property.

"We'll see a lot of changes coming to the park over the next couple of years," she said. "It won't be an overnight process."

Thursday night's fundraiser, called an Evening of Wonder, sold out with 250 guests. Features include a silent auction, a live auction and wildlife encounters.