Fun Places to Visit
Get Your Alligator Fix at Gatorland, Orlando, Florida
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — October 26, 2010
I've visited the 110-acre Gatorland® theme park and wildlife preserve. They call it “the Alligator Capital of the World.” They're absolutely correct. It's among the last of the great, authentic, central Florida tourist experiences. In an age when Disney, Universal and similar sanitized and homogenized mega-businesses have taken over Florida, overshadowing or pushing into oblivion entirely the state's old-time tourist attractions, Gatorland retains its popularity, its ambiance of Floridian hospitality, and its ongoing celebration of the state’s wondrous natural environment.
Zippy pauses for a unique photo opportunity at Florida's Gatorland.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
Besides, who doesn't love alligators? As it happens, alligators and their brethren, crocodiles, are more interesting than snakes. Owen Godwin, Sr., proved that conclusively as he tried various names for his outdoor exhibit of Florida wildlife: First, in 1949, he called it the Florida Wildlife Institute. No, that sounds like a government organization set up to retrain unemployed pelicans. Then, in 1950, he renamed it the Snake Village and Alligator Farm. Mistakenly thinking that the snakes would be the biggest draw, he had an impressive display of them right at the park's entrance. But vacationers' cars would speed up instead of slow down when the park’s sign came into view. When a car did stop, the family would split up: the husbands and children cautiously ventured inside as the fearful mothers remained outside. Apparently, snakes were not the “better mousetrap” of the Florida tourist industry.
The Eureka Moment
Finally, in 1954, Godwin hit upon the name (and theme) that would lead to his fame and fortune: Gatorland®
It’s not surprising, really. One obscure fact known to the world’s zookeepers is that, if you hand out surveys to zoo & animal park visitors and ask them what they really dislike, they’ll say reptiles. However, the turnstile numbers reveal a different story; that visitor attendance is actually greatest in the reptile exhibits (unless the zoo happens to have a panda flown in from China or scores something similarly newsworthy).
In the early lean years, Godwin’s initial moneymaker was Cannibal Jake, a 13-foot alligator. Godwin fitted out a trailer with a bathtub, fan, heater and other comforts of home for Jake, and drove the big reptile to various towns for display. The admission price: one thin dime. Godwin and Jake also spent several summer off-seasons on the New Jersey Boardwalk, where Godwin, dressed in western cowboy garb, related great stories about Florida’s flora and fauna.
The Legendary “Bone Crusher”
Gatorland’s first superstar, however, was Bone Crusher, an extraordinary 15-foot long, 1,080 pound crocodile. Godwin claimed that Bone Crusher was the largest crocodile in captivity, and offered $1,000 to anyone who could point out a larger specimen. As it turns out, Godwin’s money was safe—no one ever took him up on his offer.
From the 1950s on, tourism exploded in Florida and Gatorland continued to ramp up their operations. During the off-season, Godwin’s wife Pearl and the Godwin children tended Gatorland while Owen himself roamed the world searching for exotic animals he could bring back to the zoo.
Owen Godwin, Sr., died in 1975, succeeded as president by Frank Godwin. He in turn was succeeded by Mark McHugh, who is now president and chief executive officer of Gatorland, Frank’s son-in-law. Before joining Gatorland, Mark McHugh spent 12 years as an animal trainer, curator, researcher and spokesperson for SeaWorld Orlando, where he worked with dolphins, sea lions and killer whales.
• Entrance, Admissions & Gift Shop Complex. On May 27, 2008 Gatorland unveiled a $4 million dollar complex designed to showcase the history and culture of the park, situated on the site of the original gift shop and Godwin family home that was destroyed by a three-alarm fire on November 6, 2006. It has over 19,000 square feet of retail, meeting and office space along with an open-air admissions pavilion. You’ll still be greeted by the historic “gator mouth” entrance, advanced meeting facility and classroom, and a shopping area stocked with unique gifts.
• Alligator Island. The largest crocodilians in the park are among the hundreds that can be found on this island situated in the northern section of Gatorland's Gator Lake. Take the immensely popular Alf, for example, Gatorlands’ biggest reptile, an enormous American critter over 15 feet long and weighing over 1,000 pounds. The island is also home to such native Florida birds as the Greater Egret, Snowy Egret, and Florida Grackals, that make their nests in a large tree. A special “bat house” on the island serves as quarters for a few thousand Mexican Free-Tail Bats that emerge and fly around at night, munching on and reducing the local insect population.
• Express Railroad. From 1965 until its retirement in 2000, the original Gatorland Iron Horse transported 7.5 million visitors around the park. A new station was then constructed, and the new Gatorland Express made its debut run on July 1, 2001. But the old Iron Horse, fashioned to look like a 19th century locomotive, is still on display. The train makes a stop at the very South end of the park close to Pearl's Smokehouse and the Alligator Wrestling Stadium. You can also find in the Gatorland Train Station Jorge's Fun Face Painting for both kids and adults.
• Breeding Marsh and Bird Rookery. Created in 1991 as a natural breeding area for Gatorland's gators, the 10 acre Gatorland Breeding Marsh contains 130 adult alligators... 100 females and 30 males. By dwelling in such a natural environment, the alligators are at ease and romance often blooms, alligator-style, which ultimately results in a new generation of Gatorland's reptile inhabitants. A three-storey Observation Tower and raised wooden walkways allow visitors an obstructed view of the alligators and other wildlife.
waiting for “the decisive moment” while photographing birds in Gatorland's Alligator breeding marsh and bird rookery.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
Shortly after its development, the Breeding Marsh became home for several different species of Florida's birds, such as Anhingas, Cormorants, Egrets, Herons, Ibis, and Storks.
birdwatchers and photographers delight in the Many species of florida's birds that can be found in gatorland's rookery.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
Since the alligators protected these birds from their natural predators such as raccoons, snakes, and bobcats, the birds also used the area for both roosting and nesting. The Gatorland Breeding Marsh & Bird Rookery is now one of the largest and most accessible Bird Rookeries in Florida. The place has become a favorite among nature photographers, since they can easily photograph a whole range of birds in a natural setting without having to wade out into the dangerous Everglades.
Photographer at gator lake, gatorland, florida. zippy took this photo from the 3-storey observation tower. (Photo © Richard Grigonis.)
In November 2000, the Gatorland Breeding Marsh and Bird Rookery was included by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as part of its Great Florida Birding Trail.
Although American Alligators don't have vocal cords, they can make quite loud sounds. The male gators bellow to impress and attract females. You can hear them a 1.5 miles away. Females bellow too, but not as loudly nor quite as scarily as the male of the species. When an alligator is angry, it will hiss, slap its head on the surface of the water and wave its tail around.
While at the marsh and Gator Lake early in the morning, Yours Truly heard an alligator make a bellowing noise. It was really startling how loud they are. Even more creepy was what occurred next: one-by-one, all of the other alligators in the lake joined in! Quite a cacaphony. Perhaps that's how all the gators at Gatorland start their day.
alligator bellowing, perhaps to attract a female, at gator lake and marsh, gatorland, florida. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
Amazingly you can view the the Breeding Marsh area right now from your PC using Gatorland's Gator Cam.
• Jungle Crocs. This area of the park houses some really huge, menacing-looking (and acting) crocodiles. Take Sultan the Nile crocodile, who hasn't yet grown to his theoretical length of 20 feet, nor has he eaten any pepole lately, which is what Nile crocodiles tend to do in their native Africa. Hes called Sultan because, as his name implies, he has a harem of female crocodiles. Not far from Sultan & Company are Dundee and Morton, a pair of Saltwater crocodiles, along with their mates. Like their Nile cousins, Saltwater crocs can also attain a length of over 20 feet and are maneaters in the Indo-Pacific region.
My favorite story about Saltwater crocs concerns how their voracious appetite helped defeat Japan in World War II. During the Battle for the Island of Ramree in January and February of 1945, the Royal Marines and RAF tangled with a Japanese garrison stationed there. The 36th Indian Infantry Brigade landed with RAF and Royal Marine units. The Marines outflanked 900 of the Japanese defenders, who abandoned their base and marched to join a larger Japanese battalion on the other side of the island. This 16 kilometer route led the Japanese into a huge, thick mangrove swamp, which was soon surrounded by British forces. The Japanese soldiers became trapped in deep mud and started to fall victim to a lack of food and water, not to mention tropical diseases, scorpions, tropical mosquitoes, and especially saltwater crocodiles. Naturalist Bruce Wright later claimed that the crocodiles attacked and ate numerous soldiers. Wright later wrote:
“That night [of the 19 February 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left...Of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive.”
Readers will be glad to know that Gatorland keeps their Saltwater crocs well-fed and penned up.
Also residing in the Jungle Crocs area is the only species of crocodile found in the United States, the American crocodile (crocdylus acutus). It too can reach a length of 20 feet, and is not considered to be a man-eater. Found only in the very southern are of Florida, fewer than 500 American crocs are thought to be in the U.S. wild today, although the species can also be found in Central and South America.
Jungle Crocs is home to a pair of rare Cuban crocodiles, Lucy and Ricardo. The Gatorland staff maintains that the two Cuban crocodiles ” ...are perhaps pound for pound the most dangerous crocodile in Jungle Crocs. Capable of leaping high out of the water to snatch unsuspecting prey, Cuban crocodiles are also extremely maneuverable on land. Threatened with extinction in its native Cuba, fewer than 6,000 are thought to be left in the wild today."
The problem with Cuban crocodiles is that, prior to the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, American mining companies dug canals leading from the ocean into the interior of Cuba. This has allowed American crocodiles to swim into Cuban swamps and mate with native Cuban crocodiles, thus spawning hybrids. Unless someone finds the money to fill in those canals, this “genetic storm” will continue and will lead to the disappearance of the pure-bred Cuban crocodile.
• Swamp Walk. If you want to see what central Florida looked like up until the middle of the 19th century, just take a stroll on Gatorland's elevated wooden walkway called the Swamp Walk, which meanders through a nearly unspoiled swamp populated with Cypress trees. From the late 1800s through the 1930s, many Cypress Swamps were logged for lumber and turpentine, and much of the wetlands were drained to so that farms and homesteads could be established. Just south of the Everglades, Florida's Big Cypress Swamp is one of the largest cypress swamps in the U.S., covering 5,000 square kilometers of cypress domes, dwarf cypress and cypress strands. Much of this swamp is protected as part of the Big Cypress National Preserve.
It was difficult in the old days to penetrate the swamp, so loggers settled for making off with just the largest, choice trees. That's why Swamp Walk visitors will see some very large and old cypress tree stumps. Gatorland's Cypress Swamp is considered part of the headwaters of the Everglades, since water from this Cypress Swamp flows south through the Kissimmee waterways into Lake Okeechobee and thence into the Everglades. Gatorland's Swamp Walk does not resort to any special enclosures or exotic wildlife. It is a totally natural exhibit, a 15-minute walk among natural plants and animals that inhabit this special Florida ecosystem.
• Very Merry Aviary. For sheer personal fun, visit Gatorland's Very Merry Aviary, home to the colorful and remarkably friendly Lorikeets, which are native to the Western Pacific and East Indies. In Australia, both fruit orchard farmers and the government dislike Lorikeets—the government even classifies them as a pest—because they can ruin 70 to 90 percent of fruit crops when they methodically forage among trees laden with fruit. Although small birds, they're sufficiently aggressive to crowd out other birds from their normal feeding and nesting grounds. At Gatorland, however, they're just goofy, friendly birds.
a little cup of nectar will make you a lot of friends among the lorikeets at gatorland. (photo © richard grigonis.)
Lorikeets, have a diet of mostly fruit, nectar, pollen and water they find in leaves. So, buy a cup of nectar for a nominal charge, walk into the Gatorland aviary, and you'll soon have lots of new bird friends landing on your arms, head and shoulders, vying for the liquid goodie you've just brought them. That's why they “love people” —they associate you with food, like Pavlov's dog reacting to a bell.
Still, it is great fun. Gatorland makes available paper towels for those Lorikeet afficionados who have a “too personal” enounter with the birds.
• Allie's Barnyard. This is a petting zoo stocked with baby animals who adore being petted and fed. There's Gracie the goat who will daintily eat out of your hand, Harley the Macaw who vocalizes on occasion, along with the traditional assortment of chickens, ducks, deer, sheep, and goats. Feeding cones are also available for a nominal charge.
• Flamingo Lagoon. Just across from the Very Merry Aviary and Allie's Barnyard is Gatorland's Flamingo Lagoon, home to a small colony of American Flamingos. These pink, spindly birds can grow to be five feet in height and can live in captivity for more than 40 years. While visiting Gatorland's Flamingo Lagoon you may also view several different species of wild birds such as White Ibis, Grackals, Anhinga, Heron, Egrets, and Black Vultures. Several species of turtles as well as fish are also resident at the Flamingo Lagoon.
• Snakes of Florida. Whether you're intrigued, fascinated, or just plain terrified of snakes, you can find most of Florida's species of snakes at Gatorland's Snakes of Florida exhibit. Most of these are harmless—except for a few species of venomous snakes, which are of course securely kept behind a barrier of strike proof glass. These more intimidating critters include the largest venomous snake found in Florida, the mighty Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, and the only venemous water snake in Florida, the brightly colored Coral Snake. For those visitors whose aversion to snakes is too great, a separate walkway with a hedge divider is avaiable which you to walk safely without getting too close to them.
• Gator Gully Splash Park. Situated near the renowned Gator Jumparoo Show area, Gatorland's quarter-acre Gator Gully Splash Park enables kids and adults to cool off among statues of animals that in some cases spew forth water, such as the giant egrets and the two giant gators, each with mounted dueling water guns. The are also more animal exhibits here, along with changing stations, dry shade pavilions and a retail outlet featuring the “Gator Gully Gang."
• Great Shows. Gatorland is host to some of the more eye-opening live entertainment you're liable to encounter in Florida, anywhere else, for that matter...
The Gator Jumparoo Show: Perhaps Gatorland's most impressive show. Huge alligators jump four to five feet out of the water for food, nearly devouring hands and other body parts of the trainers.
Gator Wrestlin': Gatorland's alligator wrestling show is performed “Florida Cracker” style in a shaded 800 seat stadium. Gator wranglers catch a 6 to 8 foot alligator by hand and climb onto the snapping animal's back and explain their behavior and other facts to the audience. Death-defying and funny stunts abound. Afterward, the jaws of a gator are taped shut and visitors can pay to have photographs taken of them “wrestling” the animal. It's Yours Truly's favorite part of the experience, as you can see by the photos.
visitors attending the gator wrestling show have the option of paying to be photographed with pre-subdued reptiles like this one. the money is used to buy gator food.
(photo © richard grigonis.)
Upclose Enounters: In the Upclose Encounters Show, a trainer/animal expert brings out some strange creatures from around the world, as well as (of course) examples of Florida's exotic, semi-tropical wildlife. After the shows, you can have yourself photographed with a variety of exotic animals, as my godchild Caitlin did with Gatorland's "designer snake," an albino Burmese python named Firefly.
Here we see caitlin doherty posing for a sourvenir photo with gatorland's "designer snake," an albino burmese python named firefly. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
Animals on the Go: This Gatorland entertainment experience is said to “feature the softer side of the animal world.” Hosted by one of the Gatorland Entertainers, it enables you to have interactive animal encounters where you and/or your kids can get personal with some of the park’s more adorable critters. As the name implies, these encounters are done “on the move” so you should be on the lookout for these roving educational entertainments as you amble about the park.
I definitely got my “reptile fix” at Gatorland. You will too.