You squirm impatiently in the back seat of the family sedan, waiting for the endless greenway of Florida’s Orange Blossom Trail to yield something of interest. For miles now, roadway signs have promised wonders ahead at “The Alligator Capital of the World.” Soon, there it is, a long strip of buildings and walkways, fronted by a classic entrance, a giant concrete gator head, its mouth wide open, beckoning you to enter. Welcome to Gatorland.
Passing into the gators jaws, beneath stalactite-like teeth, you enter a large gift shop, and buy your tickets there. Past the turnstiles is a classic Florida attraction. Concrete sidewalks with animal tracks painted on them lead you past snakes and reptiles, through an aviary and across bridges to giant pools filled with thousands of alligators. They mostly lie around, often piled on top of one another, basking in the humid Florida sunshine. Wooden boardwalks take you into authentic swamplands, and an observation tower offers a view over the entire park. Exploring the grounds on foot is fun, but there is also a train ride, and it takes in a big chunk of the 110 acre property, much of which is given over to enormous breeding marshes, and wildlife preserves set aside as a permanent refuge.
You can tell your teachers that your visit was highly educational. Guides and animal handlers are on hand to answer questions and give presentations. Watch as a deadly water moccasin snake is caught and “milked,” its venom extracted from its fangs into a plastic cup (The snake wrangler will walk around the circular enclosure and allow every child to stare straight into the snake’s open gullet). See the lightning fast bite of the Florida Snapping Turtle. Watch several handlers lift a gigantic python. And, best of all, see a brave and highly trained expert wrestle a six foot alligator, flipping it over and putting the beast into a sleep-like trance (this reaction is called “tonic immobility.” Won’t your teacher be impressed!). The most spectacular offering is the Gator Jumparoo Show. Chunks of chicken are dangled over a pool of hungry alligators. The normally lethargic reptiles leap into action, jumping six or seven feet from of the water and snatching the meaty treats straight out of the hands of their keepers. It’s a dramatic reminder of the power and prowess of these bumpy-skinned, cold-blooded predators. Cap off your day by having your picture taken on the back of a real live gator (who always seem to smile for the camera).
As you revisit the gift shop on your way out, don’t forget to collect a few souvenirs. There are postcards, videos, snow globes, even gator jerky and cans of gator stew(Sometimes the gator eats you, sometimes you eat the gator). Sadly, On November 6, 2006, a heating pad in one of the reptile exhibits shorted out and began a 3-alarm fire. The entrance and gift shop suffered the worst damage, and a crocodile and two pythons perished in the blaze. Local firefighters brought the disaster under control in a couple of hours, and luckily, all of the major structures and housings remained intact, with the exception of the gift shop and classic Gatorland entryway, which had to be rebuilt.
Gatorland was launched in 1949 by Owen Godwin, and is still run by his family. The park has changed surprisingly little over the years. The original “Iron Horse” train was retired in 2000, replaced by a newer engine. A themed kids’ playground has been added, and the shows and presentations receive regular enhancements. Granted, it may not be a world-class resort, but Gatorland remains one of the best ways to go back in time and see a wild Florida attraction that dates back 22 years B.D. (Before Disney).
If you have fond memories of visiting the critters at Gatorland in your youth, we’d love to hear all about your adventures in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this decidedly retro attraction.