NAPLES — With wide mulched swaths of succulents and tropical trees as walkway sentinels, the Naples Botanical Garden opened its newly developed, 70-acre garden Saturday.
The fanfare reached New York, where its opening crackled across a Times Square LED billboard last week.
But most of those in the crowd of nearly 660 on Saturday were locals, a number of them families out to see what the space, triple the previous garden’s size, held for them.
The Children’s Garden was the immediate star, where children ran to and from a manual pump to slosh out water into plastic watering cans for feeding the foliage and a garden of “vegetables in training.” A giant spurting foundation fountain tantalized older children into dashing through its blasts, while others clambered to the top of a pair of tree houses to look down over a rockscape area planted with native foliage.
The “Secret Garden,” a winding walkway where plants popped up from purses, sneakers and even a turquoise toilet, was a magnet for smaller children.
Liz Durand’s son, Marcus, 20 months, tottered from watering can to pump to fill his container. Nearby stood an herb-planted plastic dump trunk, already sodden with watery love offerings from little hands.
“He’s having a blast,” the Naples resident said. “He was yelling and excited when we went into the butterfly house. He was chasing the butterflies.”
Maddie Spencer, 8, of Naples, chose as her favorite spot a creek where stepping stones allowed children and adults to make their way across without a bridge. Her older sister, Jamy, 10, liked the Brazilian Garden, where Amazonian lily pads floated like giant discs.
“Welcome to Naples! How are things in Canada? Oh, cold, eh?” a guitar player shouted to visitors there.
Brazilian and Caribbean music themed to two of the new gardens greeted visitors; the musicians will be back today when the garden is open for what will be its new regular hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Docents will be on hand to explain each of the gardens and outfit young visitors with pipe-cleaner butterfly antennae and dragonfly tattoos. A lunch stand is offering fare like chicken salad, ham-and-brie and roasted vegetable sandwiches for $7 to $8.
The garden had a couple of gate crashers Saturday — two stray dogs that took up a guarded residence in the birding tower until visitors retreated to a bridge over its neighboring lake. Then the dogs ambled off so people like Maria Bravo, 57, of Naples, could take in Rookery Island and the South Wetlands Preserve from its roofed porch.
“It’s nice. I used to go to watch birds out at this big tree in Port Royal where you could see all kinds of birds on the branches. I think you could see a lot of different birds around here at the right time — especially around sunset,” she said.
Bill Shirley, 36, of Naples, said the preserve area looked as if it were still under construction, and his friend, Alex Poz, 40, agreed: “Maybe they’re working on getting out some of the melaleuca farther out there.”
Melaleuca removal has been particularly tough for the garden because it isn’t easily uprooted and cutting it down only causes the roots to sprout other places. The staff has been slowly starving the invasive trees by girdling them at points along the trunk.
Still, it was Neapolitan Steve Jones’ favorite area.
“It’s peaceful. I liked walking out there because there’s nobody there,” he said after his tour. The preserve may have given Jones a bit of respite from keeping his grandson, Colby Lahanse, 2, from appreciating the garden a bit too much.
“He was trying to pick the flowers,” Jones said.
But the pair “had a blast,” he declared. “He had a butterfly land on his hand and that was pretty neat.”
The butterfly house had pulled in a number of photographers like Brian Max, 47, of Cape Coral, and his wife, Jeanne, 56, who were eyeing a White Peacock butterfly amid a gaggle of Monarchs. The couple are members of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and had stopped in Naples on a whim, unaware this was the opening day.
“We just kind of fell into it,” he admitted. “But it’s a great place. We love it.”
Ed and Phyllis McCloskey of Naples hadn’t realized the garden was opening either, until friends visiting from India read about it and asked to come. They liked the wide paths that let Phyllis McCloskey’s motorized chair maneuver easily on its 2-plus miles of winding circular walkways. The garden also offers motorized-cart rental for $12
“They have it laid out so it doesn’t get crowded,” she pointed out. “Everything’s very accessible.”
The garden, which began with meetings of its first board more than 15 years ago, attracted 1,000 members to a pre-opening tour Friday. Member Jane Benz hadn’t been able to come until Saturday and said she was delighted with the experience.
“There’s something about flowers and nature that just gets to the soul. Maybe it’s just that we all really need beauty in our life,” she observed.
The garden, launched with a $5 million gift from the late Harvey E. Kapnick that preserved the property from development, formally opened at 11 a.m. Saturday with a vine-cutting by government representatives, including county Commissioner Donna Fiala, a member of the garden’s original board, and its current district commissioner, Fred Coyle.
State Rep. Tom Grady of Naples and Naples Botanical Garden Board President Judy Sproul joined the group, offering thanks for the perseverance of many volunteers and donors.
“This is not just special for us,” Executive Directory Brian Holley told the nearly 100 people gathered at the gate. “It is special for everyone in the country and the world.”
Naples Botanical Garden grand opening, activities and entertainment, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m . today, 4820 Bayshore Drive, Naples. $9.95, adults; $4.95, children 4-14; free, children 3 younger. 643-7275 or www.naplesgarden.org.