Gatorland may be the perfect small Orlando attraction. It’s convenient to Disney World and the other parks, big enough to make a few spare hours enjoyable, and pure Florida kitsch from entrance to exit. (The entrance is a giant concrete gator head.) And it features alligators – lots and lots of alligators – that vacationers from overseas and north of Georgia want to see when they visit Florida. If Walt Disney had not built a massive theme park resort 20 minutes away, Gatorland would still be a family-owned tourist trap with six employees or, more likely, gone bankrupt somewhere around 1985. But Walt did and Gatorland didn’t.
Gatorland relies on colorful murals to spark up cheap cinderblock walls, and technology has not made a major foothold within this park. Its top attraction – the Gator Jumparoo – relies on corny jokes, blue-collar humor, and gators jumping out of the water to eat raw chicken dangled a few feet in the air. If you think, “Jeez, that’s weird,” then you should consider a visit. If you prefer tradition, take in the gator wrestlin’. (There’s never a “g” on the end of gator wrestlin’.)
- Alligators. Small pens near the entrance host two-foot gators. A few feet farther, they grow to four feet. In the big lake out back, they grow over 10 feet – and one ornery 15-foot one gets his own pen. They have white gators (not albino), crocodiles, turtles, snakes, and other reptiles too. You not only watch gators wrestle and jump, you can also take a picture with them (for an extra fee), eat them, or take the head of a dead one home. (Gator meat is high protein and low fat, making it less tasty than beef unless fried.
- Minor attractions. An aviary is open sporadically, but for a $1 investment in bird food on a stick, you can have 20 parakeets eating out of your hand. It has a small petting zoo with farm animals and an even smaller owl exhibit.
- Pay extra for extras. Have your photo taken with a (real) small gator or a big (fake) gator. Ride the train for $2.
- Pay extra for thrills. Gatorland just introduced a zip line, which features a strong (hopefully) cable over the park. Riders sit on a fairly small thong and glide semi-above the gators on five separate lines at speeds “up to 25 miles per hour.” Each zip trip is fairly quick, and the thrill comes more from a fear of falling than what might happen should you actually land within a cadre of alligators. Cost: Around $70 including park admission.
- Atmosphere. Beyond the attractions, Gatorland relies heavily on boardwalks and sand trails reminiscent of Florida circa 1955. The vegetation surrounding the main gator lake remains true to natural Florida, and a swamp trail presents fairly untouched land. It’s not exactly the real Florida – not with gators jumping for raw chicken – but it’s an easy and entertaining way to at least touch the Florida that existed before Mickey Mouse’s arrival.
For more information, visit Gatorland’s website.