PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (WRBL) – This weekend Callaway Gardens celebrates its 70th anniversary. Today we’re remembering how Callaway Gardens was started and how they’ve been able to survive economic hardships along the way thanks to a new partnership.
We begin with a look back at an interview News 3’s Phil Scoggins did with Bo Callaway in 2002 that was conducted right in the heart of the Gardens. The azaleas were in full bloom. Callaway was observing its golden anniversary then. Bo related how his parents, Cason and Virginia Callaway, started the Gardens.
“They were started really as an accident,” according to Bo. “There’s a great dam site here on Mountain Creek Lake and it was obvious it would make a beautiful lake, and Dad loved the lakes where you could fish and recreate.”
As the lake was filling, Bo says his Dad had not decided what to do. “The Gardens were not in his mind. As the lake was being built he said this is just too pretty. It’s got to be something that everybody can see.”
Bo says that thought prompted his Dad to give all the land that comprised the original Gardens, all 2,500 acres, to the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation. “Dad endowed it with a small endowment and said…we’ll have a garden.”
“He planted 50,000 prunifolia seeds and everybody knew they wouldn’t come up from seed…but they did! The prunifolia has not really been endangered since because we’ve been putting it everywhere.”
The prunifolia, or plumleaf, azalea eventually became the symbol of Callaway Gardens.
“The idea was that it would be for wildflowers and trees and native things. People would come in the first few years of the Gardens and they would say…this is absolutely lovely, but where are the gardens? We missed them. They would expect it to be a formal garden.”
Bo says it became clear to his Dad after the first year of operation that not enough people would come just to see a natural garden and pay an admission fee to support it.
“Dad said you had to have some things to toll them in. The first thing to toll them in was Robin Lake Beach. That was the biggest thing that ever happened in this part of Georgia. That was before air conditioning. It was certainly before Six Flags. It was before any competition. What else would you do? And we had a lot of flowers around the beach in order to get people looking at flowers. That’s to toll them in so they would come look at the five-mile drive which was our biggest attraction at that time.”
Bo says his parents stayed faithful to the ultimate mission of the Gardens.
“As Dad said many times, if the purpose was to break even, we’d plant it out in pine trees and break even tomorrow. The purpose is to do the mission that we have which is to show man’s relationship to nature, to show a child under six years old something beautiful…all those things is part of our mission.”
Over time other amenities were added to “toll them in.” Hotel rooms, cottages and villas, golf courses, restaurants, a conference center. Eventually the Lodge and Spa were added. These all fell under the umbrella of Callaway Gardens Resort. The revenue from the Resort helped to sustain the Foundation and allow it to carry out its mission.
The Gardens also added some major attractions to their portfolio like the Sibley Horticultural Center (now closed), the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, and the Virginia Hand Callaway Discovery Center.
In 1992 Callaway Gardens introduced a unique Christmas light display called Fantasy in Lights which continues to be a huge draw during the holiday season.
The future for Callaway looked bright, but the new century presented Callaway Gardens with some daunting financial challenges brought on in part by the recession of 2008 and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic.
The circumstances got so dire that those running the Foundation thought they might even have to close the doors. But in 2019 they found a willing partner who was interested in helping them, Herschend Enterprises based out of Atlanta.
Herschend is the largest family-owned themed attractions organization in the U.S. with over 11,000 employees. They operate amusement parks like Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.
The Foundation signed an agreement for Herschend to manage and operate Callaway Resort and Gardens for two years with an option to buy.
Fran Rogers is the chairperson of the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation. Rogers says, “It’s so hard to make it as a little, small, stand-alone resort in a small community. You don’t have the buying power to buy your insurance down, food costs, your marketing. They had all of that in spades, and they changed things on a dime.”
Andrew Wexler is the CEO of Herschend Enterprises. Wexler says, “We just started talking to members of the Foundation and realized it was a great opportunity for both the Foundation to bring in a very experienced, seasoned team as it relates to destination marketing. But for us it was also a great property where we can accomplish our vision and mission. Our vision is to bring families closer together, and we do it by creating memories worth repeating which is our mission. And so the Gardens were a perfect opportunity for us.”
In April of this year Callaway’s relationship with Herschend Enterprises was expanded thanks to the successful track record over the past two years.
“Under the new agreement,” according to Wexler, “Herschend is going to own the resort assets. That’s going to include the Lodge and Spa, the golf courses, beach area, and the conference center. But we will also lease and manage for the Foundation the Discovery Center, the Butterfly Center, the Chapel, and the Gardens. So those will stay in the Foundation. We will manage them for the Foundation so we can get good scale across both operations to manage them effectively and efficiently.”
Herschend plans to invest more than $20 million dollars over the next five years to make the Resort better.
“Some of the initial investment is really going to be infrastructure, renovations, improvements to both the Resort and the areas where we will have the events. But the idea is to make sure that we continue to expand the season and our event presence so that we give people many reasons to come throughout the year,” says Wexler.
One of the new events Herschend introduced last fall focused on pumpkins. Sonny Horton, the general manager of the Resort, describes its impact this way.
“When we added pumpkins to Callaway last year, Gardens by day, glow by night, it had a significant lift on the business, not just for Callaway’s attendance but also for businesses across the Chattahoochee Valley. And we’re doing a major expansion to pumpkins this year by updating and adding a new experience over at Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden which hasn’t been open in five years. We’re building a new corn maze there. We’ll have sunflowers. Plant pumpkins. It will be a brand new experience.”
Horton adds that this is also the 30th anniversary of Fantasy in Lights. They plan a new major scene on one of the lakes at Callaway.
But Horton is quick to assure longtime devotees of Callaway Gardens that any future changes will be in keeping with the vision of its founders. “You’re not going to see any rollercoasters for sure. We will make decisions on what we add based upon research. Does it fit the Callaway brand and does it compliment the natural landscape?”
Just like Callaway Gardens, Herschend Enterprises is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. “It’s really interesting to see how the timing and the history of the companies mirror each other,” says Wexler. “We want to continue to build on Callaway’s legacy and make sure that we’re successfully bringing our experience in marketing and attraction development to further this. We want Callaway to be Georgia’s premier resort destination.”
From the Foundation’s perspective, they are simply thankful for this new partnership.
According to Fran Rogers, “It was a godsend. I don’t know what we would have done without Herschend. I’m most thrilled that it’s been saved. It’s going to be better than it was, yet it’s going to keep the charm that it had and the charm that people remember. It is a family place. Herschend Family Entertainment is the ideal owner of the resort. I’m just thrilled that I can say it’s not going to fail. It’s going to be better than ever. Cason and Virginia will be proud.”