Brady bunch revives and overhauls Wonder Gardens
John Brady and his family are pouring their life savings into rebuilding the Everglades Wonder Gardens on Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs.
“I’m not an overly-affl uent person. I’m just a regular guy,” Brady said. “I took my life savings and put it into doing this because I believe in it. What’s going to make it successful is getting other people to believe in this as much as I do.”
Brady said the park was opened in 1936 by Bill Piper and closed in April 2013. The Piper family still owns the park, and Brady is leasing it. If Brady hadn’t stepped in to lease the property and reopen the park, the Pipers were going to rent the storefront and sell the property. The property would have then been developed, possibly turned into a condominium or shopping center. “We hated to watch another roadside Florida attraction disappear because of a failing economy,” said Brady. “We’ve totally rehabbed the park. One area used to be a corral with deer, goats and pigs. We got rid of that fenced-in area and made it into a beautiful lawn with an Asian garden. We tried to bring this park into the future as more of a botanical garden with animals such as birds, reptiles and insects.”
The park that was once a “neighborhood zoo” was fi lled with large mammals in small confi nements. There were mountain lions in an area estimated to be about 20 by 30 feet. Brady turned that area into a butterfl y garden with exotic plants and a bench placed there to overlook the Imperial River. The old park also had a separate Florida panther enclosure that Brady demolished and transformed into a bromeliad garden.
“The initial goal was to get in and reopen the park. Now we’re striving to make it a not-for-profi t charity to supplement the money needed to keep this place going,” Brady said. “The next critical phase will be getting the property purchased because if we don’t buy it somebody else will, and nobody is going to buy it to do what we’re doing. That would be the end of the Wonder Gardens.”
Brady is currently in the process of creating the not-forprofi t charity. He has the board members established. The most diffi cult part he is facing is fi nding people who want to contribute funds to keep the Wonder Gardens alive.
“Nobody has stepped up yet because most people don’t know about it,” Brady said. “Most people don’t know that the park has reopened. It made national news when the park closed. We only have the ability to make a small noise because of the budget. It’s an effort that we’ve only been at for about fi ve months now, and it takes time to get this information out to the public.”
It’s been a struggle for the family. When the park closed, the animals were all sold to other parks throughout the country. With the exception of a few turtles and birds, all of the animals that reside at the park now were purchased with Brady’s own money. Brady thinks that the newage atmosphere of the park will appeal more to people who come to Southwest Florida for the winter season.
“We’ve been coming here for 20 years with our children,” said one of the park’s patrons, Diane Weissen of Estero. “We have the zoo in Naples to see the big animals. What they’re doing with the park now is exciting and beautiful. I especially like that it’s more relaxing for seniors like me to be able to sit on a bench, watch butterfl ies and listen to fountains. We are happy they still have the alligators because it’s fun for the grandkids.” With mainly volunteers running the facility, including Brady’s son Ryan, they only have two full-time employees, which helps to keep their funds going to rebuilding the park instead of payroll. Another volunteer is Keriellen Lohrman, who owns the Bird Gardens of Naples, a sanctuary for rescued parrots. “I’m working with the Everglades Wonder Gardens to supply them with parrots as opposed to them having to go out and buy them,” Lohrman said. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in this place, and I think what this family is doing is wonderful. The place looks entirely different and smells much better.”
One of the park’s full-time employees is Brady’s daughter Molly. She fully believes in what they’ve been doing to change the park and thinks that it’s going to be a great offering to the community. “It’s been a fi nancial hardship, but it’s doing something amazing for us,” Molly Brady said. “We’ve been making a lot of changes and will continue to make changes. We’ve been getting a lot of people who wouldn’t come to the park before because they didn’t like seeing the caged animals. We’re seeing a big turnaround. It’s been an incredible bonding experience, and we don’t regret the decision. It’s going to be worth it in the end.” Florida Gulf Coast University students are encouraged to stop by the Wonder Gardens for a day to escape the pressures of studying and being on campus all of the time. Also, if students are interested in volunteer opportunities, the Wonder Gardens is always looking for new volunteers to help out, which will also help students earn service learning hours.
Since an original visit to the Everglades Wonder Gardens in October, the family has made more changes but not many. They are still in the process of establishing the not-for-profi t charity. They have been hosting a variety of private functions, including their fi rst wedding. Ryan Brady said the family is still plugging away at what they have been doing with the park since they rented it. They have built a canary and fi nch sanctuary. They also have added more plant life to the orchid trail. They also have African Sulcata tortoises and give people the opportunity to feed the animals and get an up-close encounter.
With the Everglades Wonder Gardens reopened and the changes made, the Brady family is on their way. They plan to hold different events to help connect more with the community. For more information about the upcoming events and about what the park has to offer, patrons can visit the website at www. evergladeswondergardens.net and follow the park’s Facebook page.