Like the azaleas that line its paths, Cypress Gardens is starting to bloom.

“So much has been done to get it back to being a garden and make it a true family destination,” said Elaine Morgan, executive director of the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce. “It has truly turned into that type of place.”

Such was the case on Friday for Jerry and Cristy Dudley of Aynor. Cristy Dudley teaches at Aynor Elementary and has brought her class there on field trips, but this was her first visit with her own children, Tyler, 8, and Shelley, 4.

“We just had a day off and thought we’d take a day trip,” she said.

School field trips still bring a significant number of visitors — about 10,000 each year — to the gardens, said Director Dwight Williams. But the number of tourists is also growing, now topping 50,000 annually.

“(Spring) is our busy time of year, and we’ve been extremely busy this year,” he said.

Officials attribute a surge in popularity to some changes that have been made in the past five years.

The 170-acre swamp garden was originally part of Dean Hall, one of the Cooper River’s largest rice plantations. Berkeley County took over operations from the city of Charleston in 1996.

But it has suffered in obscurity. Located at the end of Cypress Gardens Road, between Goose Creek and Moncks Corner, with a Moncks Corner address, it is not on the beaten path.

“Let’s face it, you don’t come out here by accident,” Williams said. “You have to have the desire to come here.”

And even then it can be tricky, he said.

“GPS helps a little bit, but sometimes it doesn’t even get them all the way here,” he said. “They end up down the road.”

Cypress Gardens has also struggled financially, ending 2008 with $800,000 in debt. Critics argued the site should be closed, and proponents circulated petitions to keep it open.

In 2009, Berkeley County officials closed the reptile exhibit to shift the focus to history. The Heritage Museum and Heirloom Garden was added to showcase the 50,000 items from the plantation’s slave settlement found during construction of the nearby DuPont Kevlar Plant.

The main attraction remains the guided and self-guided flat bottom boat tours through the black water swamp that often bring alligator sightings, Williams said. Other attractions are the Butterfly House, Swamparium and Nature Center, and 3 miles of walking paths.

Additionally, facility rentals of Dean Hall, the museum and the cottage have made it a destination for family gatherings and corporate events, and special programs often draw in both tourists and locals.

“We have been getting so many positive comments from people who go out there and enjoy it,” Morgan said. “It gives me chills just thinking about it.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or