Janet Martin, the interim executive director of the Everglades Wonder Gardens in downtown Bonita Springs, said she hears it all the time from visitors.

“‘We thought you closed,’” she said, repeating the visitors’ words.

“Because there was so much press over the fact the Piper family was leaving, there are still a lot of people who come who say, ‘We thought this went away,’” she said. “It’s important to get the word out that we’re still here because we don’t have a large marketing budget.”

Not only is the Old Florida roadside attraction hanging on and kicking like one of its 38 alligators, the gardens are open daily even as volunteers continue refurbishment work. The property is now owned by the new nonprofit organization, the Bonita Wonder Gardens.

“What we’ve accomplished in the past six months has been a huge undertaking, and we’re so please with what we’ve done,” said Trish Leonard, president of the nonprofit organization. “We have a new handicap ramp, which the 80-year-old building never had before, and the gift shop has been reorganized. We’ve found a lot of archives on the property as we’ve been cleaning and moving things around.”

Things have changed some, with more of a focus on the botanical garden aspect of the property and a switch to housing rescued birds and reptiles. Martin said some visitors ask why the previous animals, such as the otters, aren’t there anymore. She said the staff explains that the Piper family located new homes for those animals when they closed their family business.

“Most people are just thrilled that it’s still here,” Martin said. “For many people, it’s more than a walk in the park because they’re going down memory lane. A lot of our guests were here 25 or 35 years ago, and now they’re coming back with their own families.

“It’s fun for us to listen to them telling the stories to their children and grandchildren about how they came here,” she said. “That’s awesome to watch everybody remember and leave with such a good feeling.”

80th anniversary celebration

Next weekend will be an especially great time to visit as the Everglades Wonder Gardens celebrates its 80th anniversary with a series of special events.

The weekend starts on Thursday with the Some Enchanted Evening signature fundraiser. This special event is by invitation for donors to the capital campaign, but it’s not too late to donate and receive an invitation.

Friday will feature the weekly Find It Fridays Scavenger Hunt during the day and the special Moonshine & Music 80th anniversary kickoff party. The party takes its theme from the gardens’ founders, brothers Bill and Lester Piper, who had to make a fast move south from Michigan in the 1930s because of “trouble” involving their bootlegging activities.

Open to the public, the evening party will feature live music by the local band West of Galway, hot dogs, popcorn and moonshine. Tickets must be purchased in advanced through the gardens’ website or at its gift shop to attend the party; no tickets will be sold at the door.

Saturday starts with the weekly morning Yoga at the Gardens session, and then features the Family Fun Day anniversary celebration. Activities will include a proclamation by Mayor Ben Nelson, photo opportunities with pirate Capt. Johnny O, birthday cupcakes, an educational alligator feeding, face painting, games popular in 1936 and a visit by a flamingo mascot.

On Sunday, the gardens will offer a smaller Family Fun Day, featuring birthday cupcakes, face painting, games popular in 1936 and a visit by a flamingo mascot.

New chapter to old attraction

David Piper, descendent of the founders, closed the business in 2013 because of personal health issues and put the property up for sale. Local nature photographer John Brady stepped up shortly after the closure to lease the property and reopen it as a gallery for his work and as a botanical garden while he helped to found a nonprofit to save the property.

He still displays his photographs for sale in the gardens’ gift shop, but since he never intended to run the roadside attraction permanently, he handed over management to the Bonita Wonder Gardens nonprofit in the summer of 2015 after the organization received a loan from the city of Bonita Springs to purchase the property from the Piper family.

The nonprofit has doubled the size of the alligator area and built a new flight cage for the birds, but the organization needs donations and volunteers to continue the refurbishment work. And then there is the loan that needs to be repaid to the city, for which the gardens needs capital campaign contributions.

“We know we can sustain ourselves totally from our operations and ticket sales if we didn’t have the loan,” Martin said. “Once we get it paid, we know we can sustain ourselves and keep going.”

It has been a lot of work, but guests who have visited since the change in ownership have indicated that the efforts to save and refurbish the property have been worth it.

“We have a couple who came from Cape Coral after they read about it, and they couldn’t believe how beautiful it was,” Leonard said. “They wanted to come down and see what the Wonder Gardens was all about and said they’re going to tell their friends. We have a lot of locals who had never set foot on the property but now that they see it, they’re excited about it.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)

If you go

Everglades Wonder Gardens

Where: 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Spring

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (call about holiday hours)

Admission: Adults $12; seniors 65 and up $10; children 3-12 $7; under 3 free; members free

Info: 992-2591;;

Suggested: Sunscreen, sun hat, insect repellant, camera

80th anniversary weekend schedule

(Call or check Facebook for weather updates to schedule)

Thursday, Feb. 18

What: Some Enchanted Evening cocktail party fundraiser

Who: Celebration for donors to capital campaign

When: By invitation to donors

To donate: Contact Robin DeMattia at 596-7245

Friday, Feb. 19

What: Find It Fridays Scavenger Hunt

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Cost: Regular admission fee

What: Moonshine & Music 80th Anniversary kickoff party

When: 5-7 p.m.

Tickets: $15 members; $25 non-members

Purchase: From the garden’s website or at gift shop

Note: Must pre-purchase tickets; no tickets sold at the door

Saturday, Feb. 20

What: Yoga at the Gardens

When: 8 a.m.

Cost: $5 members; $10 non-members

Purchase: Pre-registration required at

What: 80th Anniversary Family Fun Day

When: (10 a.m.-2 p.m.) Photos with pirate Capt. Johnny O, (Noon) Birthday cupcakes, (1 p.m.) Proclamation by Mayor Ben Nelson, (2 p.m.) Educational alligator feeding, (During the day) Face painting, 1936 games, flamingo mascot

Cost: Regular admission fee

Sunday, Feb. 21

What: 80th Anniversary Family Fun Day

When: (Noon) Birthday cupcakes, (During the day) Face painting, 1936 games, flamingo mascot

Cost: Regular admission fee

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