Gatorland is an iconic Central Florida institution dating back to 1949, and has remained a popular roadside attraction ever since, providing visitors a flipside experience to the Disney routine. It’s Florida with the sleeves cut off: part zoo, part redneck oasis. While my initial desire to visit the park hovered around personal energy levels normally reserved for church and costume drama press screenings, I have to admit that Gatorland puts on one heck of a show for those willing to embrace its small, boiled peanut charms.
Gatorland is expectedly crammed end to end with alligators of all sizes, along with an assortment of aquatic buddies, snakes, and birds to keep the park diverse. Even a petting zoo and a water park to keep kids invested. However, it’s mostly about the gators, from the holding pens to the breeding marshes to the name on the front door. Like alligators? Well, this place is the Playboy Mansion of gator farms, inviting guests into the habitat to catch an up-close glimpse of these patient beasts.
Perhaps the strangest sensation found inside the park is the understanding that the gators are aware of a human presence. Granted, it’s impossible for the reptiles to ignore the hundreds of gawkers that stroll by, but it’s still unnerving to stare inquisitively at a gator and have the creature throw the same look back. While a safe distance away (with plenty of netting and railings to prevent disaster), some of the more friendly gators swim toward visitors, waiting for the inevitable presence of food. I don’t care how much protection is offered, watching a gator slink towards you is a chilling visual. All gator-head-dancing “Pitfall” fantasies fly right out the window at that point.
There are gators for observation, gators for photo ops, and gator “actors” in various shows. Perhaps the most vivid of the daily events is the Gator Wrestling presentation, where a brash park employee enters a tentatively gated area, yanks an alligator out of its watery tranquility, and parades it around for the gathered onlookers. Perhaps a twinge of discomfort thinking about a gator tossed around for entertainment value? I can understand. With the stars of the show hissing and trying to scurry away, there’s a pall cast over the encounter that’s never fully shaken. However, the wrestling underlines how gators protect themselves in the wild and, again, permits a close-up inspection. The show itself is a one-liner fiesta, buttressed by dime-store joke book delivery, but once the wrangler starts tussling with the gator, all the planned PETA e-mails float away, replaced by a winded man vs. gator encounter that’s a hard act to find replicated anywhere else.
For those lucky enough to still have a few Hamiltons spinning around the bank account, Gatorland offers an unusual photo op. If you’ve ever wanted a chance to sit on a restrained alligator for 1.2 seconds, this is it.
During the wrestling show, the wrangler brought up something interesting: the definition of the term “Cracker.” Gatorland insists the Caucasian insult was born from early Floridian farmers who would go around cracking their whips (cue the gunshot whip demo). I’m not convinced that’s the truth, and it seems quite a leap to go from rural bullwhip antics to an impossibly insulting caricature of a toothless, NASCAR, mother/sister culture. However, Gatorland leans into the redneck branding, piping country music throughout the park and generally supporting illiteracy with wacky signage. The atmosphere lends Gatorland a special identity among the more high-tech tourist destinations that greet visitors by the millions, but, if you’re like me, and think the whole “Blue Collar” tilt of the Earth is both unfunny and repetitive, Gatorland is going to put some serious pressure on the temples at times.
The hoedown throwdown continued to the next event of the day, The Gator Jumparoo Show. Comedically pitting two overall-wearing hicks (“Bubba” and “Cooter”) against each other in a race to feed the gators as fast as possible, the men use raw chicken to entice the creatures, hoping to lure a few out of the water for audience oohs and ahhs. Again, it’s a comedy show, so loads of pratfalls and Hee Haw jokes, furthering the country theme of the park. The gators were pretty lethargic on this day, not exactly snapping their claws for an afternoon snack. Perhaps this is why there’s so much filler. What does one do when the gators aren’t biting? Fall down and go boom. Kid tested, mother approved.
While limited to a nice 110-acre area (Disney has about 30,000), Gatorland makes the most of its space with walking trails permitting the guests an opportunity to view gators in a more natural setting. For added fun, some of the walkways are barely marked and paved, leading to a few choice moments of pure anxiety where it seems one has wandered off the established path of safety. Yay. Still, the park offers a grip of untouched Florida nature, with birds, fish, and bugs soon joining the party. Another eyebrow raiser? The park restaurant, Pearl’s Patio Smokehouse, offers a small selection of gator meat to consume. Gator meat itself is not a shocker, but the concept of buying gator meat inside a gator park is a little unnerving.
Aimed at a more down-home crowd, Gatorland is amusing and passably informative, miles away from the E-ticket rides and hostile tourist invasion that traditionally make up Central Florida recreational choices. Whether or not the park is an accurate representation of local culture is not for me to decide. All I know is this place is Foxworthy approved, with free parking and gators galore. It’s not the prettiest park in town, but its history and personality is something worth checking out.
More pictures from the day (click to huge-o-size)