Listed April 5, 2019
Opened to the public in 1966, Fiesta Gardens is a faux Mexican-themed event and entertainment complex in East Austin on the northeast shore of Lady Bird Lake. Conceived in 1960 as an interregional tourist attraction on par with Alabama’s Bellingrath Gardens and Florida’s Cypress Gardens, both of which featured show-skiing entertainment, Fiesta Gardens was designed by architect William C. Holmans, and built by a coalition of local and regional investors led by businessman and Austin Chamber of Commerce staffer, Tom Perkins, and Ed St. John, former Austin Chamber of Commerce President and Austin Aqua Festival Commodore.
The complex includes several buildings, a meticulously designed tropical landscape, a hiking trail with scenic overlooks, and spectator seating overlooking a man-made lagoon that was port to a 25-seat excursion boat. As a private venture operating on public land, the project was controversial from the start, and failed to reap the profits touted by its proponents. Despite its unprofitability, Fiesta Gardens served as a popular water-based entertainment, event, and shopping center for tourists from the time of its opening, later expanding under city ownership to serve as home base for the city’s annual Austin Aqua Festival, Austin Boat Club races, and other civic and community events. The property is further recognized for its association with community organizing efforts by the Austin Hispanic community to prevent displacement of East Austin residents for facility expansion through the early 1970s.
Fiesta Gardens was listed in the National Register for its significance in the areas of Community Planning and Development, Social History, and Entertainment and Recreation. The project was pivotal in shaping the development of the northern shore of Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake). Fiesta gardens is further significant as an “exotic” entertainment venue and tourist attraction that, though based in a Mexican-American residential enclave, catered primarily to Anglo patrons during the Civil Rights era, with a design and programming that relied on only vague references to (as well as outright stereotypes of) authentic Mexican culture. The Fiesta Gardens program also aligned with national interest in botanical tourism and show-ski entertainment. The complex has been in continuous use since 1966, and currently serves as an event space, hosting large music festivals as well as smaller community-based events.
1966 Fiesta Gardens Brochure, Austin History Center