Adventures in Gatorland

Featuring a guest post today with a good roadside America tale!

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By Elyse Gerstenecker

Florida is well-known for its wacky attractions, roadside architecture, and, let’s face it, unusual citizenry. This, along with live oak trees hanging with Spanish moss, bungalow and Mediterranean houses, and abundant orange groves are all situated under the umbrella known as “Old Florida.” If you have read a Carl Hiaasen novel, you probably understand what I mean. I now live in Central Florida, which is a mecca for lovers of Old Florida. I have created a long list of places to visit and hope to provide entertaining posts for Preservation in Pink’s followers who are interested in Florida beyond the beaten Disney path, although Disney World often serves as a catalyst for wackiness.

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke up with a desire to seek out some roadside architecture. I picked up my Roadside Florida book in search of a basic guideline to follow, and, when my boyfriend A woke up, I informed him that the day’s plan was simply to drive east on US Route 92. The early portion of our day was spent exploring antique stores and other shops in Lake Alfred and the recently revitalized downtown area of Kissimmee. For those planning a Disney trip, I highly recommend visiting Kissimmee for a Main Street experience. After we saw signs for Gatorland, one of the places on our “Old Florida Must-See List,” we decided on our destination.

From the brochures and old-school wooden signage, A and I expected the usual roadside attraction – cheesy and a bit run-down. Instead, we stumbled upon a wonder that attracts quite a number of visitors, is very well-maintained, and operates both as a theme park and an alligator, crocodile, and bird preserve. Future visitors, be warned: the admission price is not terribly cheap, and the place draws quite a crowd of families. This being a theme park that centers on man-eating creatures, I would highly recommend families with little bitty ones avoid it to save themselves (and others, like yours truly) the anxiety.

The Gatorland mouth. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland opened in 1949 under the ownership of Owen Godwin, whose family still owns the park. Godwin had operated a small alligator sideshow out of the backyard of his home south of Sebring, Florida in the 1930s, and his wife sold gator products out of their kitchen. Godwin then decided to achieve his dream of creating a park showcasing native Florida wildlife and purchased a borrow pit for an alligator-themed park off of Routes 17 and 92, which were then the highest-traveled roads in the state.

When the park opened as the Florida Wildlife Institute, it featured snakes and alligators, and local Seminole Native Americans lived on the property and wrestled alligators for entertainment. Godwin changed the name to Snake Village and Alligator Farm in the 1950s, and then to Gatorland in 1954. During this time, Godwin began traveling with a 13-foot alligator named Cannibal Jake to northern states to drum up tourism. Business boomed with the growing tourism industry in the 1950s, and Godwin traveled on safaris to attain more creatures for his farm. The famous concrete open-jawed alligator head outside the park entrance was designed by Godwin’s son, Frank, and placed in 1962. Frank Godwin later took over after his father’s death in 1975. Since the 1970s, the park has greatly expanded, but it has also joined forces with the University of Florida to perform research and breed alligators, which were on the national endangered species list from 1967 until 1987.

When A and I visited, we toured ponds and “marshes” FULL of alligators, some so enormous it was frightening. There was a bit of a crowd when we entered, all watching Gatorland’s famous Gator Jumping Show, in which entertainers send out whole chickens on lines for the alligators to jump up and snap off. Visitors walked around with hot dogs in hand, purchased to toss to the alligators for a snack. There were several exhibits about the snakes of Florida and other kinds of wildlife, as well as a sheltered exhibit that featured Louisiana’s albino alligators. I was thrilled to see a flock of flamingos.

A and I strolled through the park’s Swamp Walk, attended the Gator Wrestling show, and, for a fee, had our pictures taken sitting on an alligator and holding its mouth (taped shut by a trainer). Sadly, we did not purchase the photos. We finished our day by walking around the park and seeing all of the saltwater crocodiles. One of my favorite features of the park’s various alligator and crocodile exhibits were the signs telling some of the more outrageous stories associated with some of the creatures – an alligator captured in Tampa after eating several people’s dogs, an alligator kept in a New York City school basement, and an albino alligator so nasty that even the trainers are frightened of it.

Not kidding. Those birds are rather daring. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland has clearly adapted as ideas about entertainment have evolved. The park not only features a petting zoo and miniature train but also now has Gator Gully, a miniaturized water park for little ones to play. This spring, Gatorland opened its Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, a series of zip lines in which visitors in harnesses can zoom high across the alligator marshes. A promptly pronounced it awesome; I personally thought it insane. I can see that, through this evolution, the park has kept to Owen Godwin’s original idea and spirit, combining growing exhibits about Florida’s wildlife and natural landscape with outrageous shows and other forms of entertainment. It is, after all, a Florida theme park, and one that has managed to survive and thrive.

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