Getting Up Close And Personal With Alligators
One of the most exciting day trips for those "in the know" in Orlando is a visit to Gatorland
, one of Florida's Oldest Theme Parks. It's quintessential Florida. Started by Owen and Pearl Godwin in 1949, who with their family grew it from a meat, fish, and hot dog stand into what it is today, a 45 ha (110-acre) wildlife adventure park, 22 years before Walt Disney arrived. Their 27 descendants (from 4 children) remain actively involved. One granddaughter and her husband, Mark McHugh, who have a great origin first date story, currently run the venue with her father still involved. It's her husband's sense of humor, though, that runs through the signage you'll see as you traverse the park. Read to the end to learn of the only handicapped-accessible zip line.
The Entrance To Gatorland
If it's cold the day you visit, be warned the alligators aren't likely to be very active during the shows where they're fed. When the air is too cool, they stay deep in the water. Then, when the sun comes out, they want to lay out on the grassy knolls around the park, with only a few even interested in participating in the show for their lunch.
Gatorland Train Engine
People would sit around, back in the 1940s and '50s, watching the gators and then Owen purchased the locomotive, created a train tour, and Gatorland was on its way to what it's become today. As they became better known, people would drop pets off. Those "crazy wild critters" became the basis of the current show, the Wild and Crazy Critters. There are three shows, each about 1.5 hours apart.
If you attend the shows, walk around the park, and do the zip line, you could easily spend 6-7 hours here.
Always under construction or inventing more great experiences for everyone to enjoy, the children's water park area was closed for renovation. Don't ask them what it's like to watch concrete dry for 27 days. Let's just say they're not accustomed to running anything that slowly.
But as Pearl and Owen learned, it does take time to grow a venue of this nature and become one of the premiere attractions in the area. They're grateful to Walt Disney who brought the crowds to central Florida. And, especially during the pandemic with crowd limitations in those parks, led to more tourists discovering Gatorland.
Located near the Hunter's Creek subdivision, it's shockingly close to town. I almost rented a house perhaps two miles away and had no idea so many alligators, crocodiles, and other wildlife were so nearby. When my daughter realized it, she said, "I could've ridden a bike to come run the zip lines all day." She's right, and they're hiring.
Alligators Sun Party
Walking from habitat to habitat you may wonder about the alligator life cycle. You can only tell their gender by size and on internal examination. They breed in late March, lay their eggs, here at Gatorland
they collect them all and incubate them to increase the survival rate. They hatch in August or early September, across Florida, not just here. But they've got better than the 9% survival rate quoted at most places.
Across the entire venue, they have 2500 Crocs and Gators throughout the entire park, with crocs perhaps 100 of that number.
As we tour the facility, fortunate to see it prior to opening thanks to the generosity of Gatorland, Mr. Mark McHugh, and the Visit Orlando VIP Media Passport, we see snowy egrets riding the backs of alligators to cross the pond. Mark points out there are no raccoons or snakes on the ground. The birds generally stay in the tree when they're not on the alligator's back. The alligators eat the raccoons and other small critters that may be a danger to the egret chicks. But if the chicks fall out of the nest
well, their alligator food, too, so the egrets must be watchful. The alligators are clever, too. If the babies are out walking around on the branches, the alligators try to knock the branches to shake the babies off.
So it's a love-hate relationship that they've got going and the birds know exactly how far they need to stay away from the alligator's mouth." Mark shares.
During a typical visitor experience, you'll do your own tour but it's easy to navigate with plenty of great signage. It's most economical to purchase tickets online as you can group your entrance fee, zipline tour, and even turtle experience for a guaranteed day of fun. If you don't purchase or reserve your zipline in advance, especially during Christmas and Spring Break weeks, you may not have the opportunity to ride. That would be a shame.
Alligators were endangered in the early 1950s but aggressive conservation efforts have allowed re-population so they are no longer endangered since the 1980s. Important legislation has passed in Florida to make it illegal to feed or hunt alligators and alligators that enter the "nuisance" length (4 feet) can be relocated to Gatorland.
Alligators don't naturally want to be near people it's just that we're building homes and offices on land that has been alligator habitat for centuries. After all, alligators and crocodiles go back to the time before dinosaurs.
When you enter the park, the alligators may still be in the water, or they may already be sunning themselves on a small island. Especially after a cold night, the sun comes up during the day, all the big guys climb out of the water. In the heat of summer, you don't see the big guys, they stay in the water, stay cool.
Right away, there's the place for Jump-a-Roo show, where the Gators enter, the boys (staff) will hang chickens over the water, and the alligators jump out of the water to get the chicken.
Gatorland has programs "trainer for a day" you can go online and sign up. You'll spend a couple hours with Michael or Casey and go around the park and get all the behind-the-scenes stuff even before the park opens (like we did). You'll meet and learn all about the alligators, crocodiles, turtles, and the animals that people have dropped off in the middle of the night.
Just past the Jump-A-Roo is their children's water park (under renovation during our visit but set to open before Spring Break in February). Across the path, you'll find the Critter kitchen, a good place to stop to eat.
Trust us, there's a lot.
Son-in-law Humor Signs
We asked about who came up with all the sign sayings. He admits to most of it being his.
"That's son-in-law humor."
Gatorland's Mr. Mark McHugh
While his wife's father didn't like it initially, he says (with a twinkle in his eye) it's growing on him (after 20 years)
"I call it dashing, but we think we're a little funnier than we really are. Like dad jokes." Mark started writing a bunch of signs and now they have a creative team.
As he tells the story, we continue our stroll and reach a green marsh. This is where he tells us
"We've got about 130 alligators out here (in this section), 30 males and 100 females. The boys (gators) think that's a pretty good ratio."
You can learn the names of the alligators and how they came to be so named. Bogey was injured on a golf course. Craftsmen, he's got a big old flat head that looks like a shovel. Turnpike is a rescue gator from the highway. Winchester was shot. He had a couple of bullets in him and was nursed back to health.
That was an easy segue to ask about the veterinarian.
Their veterinarians remain on call, there's not enough business to have them on-site full-time. For Winchester's gunshot wound, the vet treated him until it was mostly healed and continues to see him weekly. The current veterinarian spends a day here every week.
When wild alligators are rescued, they tend to be "rough." They "go off" in the Gatorland ponds and find their own little territory until they figure out that they're going to be fed regularly and they don't have to fight for each meal anymore.
Then, Mark says,
"They lay around like this all day long, waiting for food to fall from the sky, from people (staff supervised only!) throwing food from the walkways."
He points out the buzzards in the tree, the turkey vultures. While the gators will eat egrets, they won't eat a buzzard, "they grab them, crunch them up, then spit them out. They taste terrible." The other buzzards, though, will feed on those parts.
We spot some ducks chattering on a hut over the walkway. Mark tells us these are Asian ducks that have adopted them for more than a year now. No one knows where they came from, most likely they were someone's pets or on a nearby pond and decided to migrate.
As we stroll along the paths, admiring the various alligator habitats, we see how carefully the males have been separated. Many of the females do fine together, but occasionally they'll recognize a "crazy" one who needs to be in a pen by herself.
During the time of our visit, January in the USA is winter (even in Florida), the alligator metabolism is slow. They're fed well here and have no reason to move. The cold weather means they're fed less and don't grow as quickly as in warmer months.
It's a walk to reach the crocodiles and well worth it. They've got American crocodiles that are from South Florida all the way through Central America to the upper portions of South America and all through the Caribbean and some saltwater crocodiles from Australia and Indonesia.
Some Cuban crocodiles, a critically endangered species are here and breeding with other crocs. Gatorland tries to save what they can but recognize the steady decline of the "pure" species. Some geneticists feel that a species is extinct when there are no more females that are 100% that genetic makeup. Gatorland hopes to slow their extinction.
Niles, Salt Water, and American crocodiles are the most common here. The "Salties" and the Niles are the largest. The Americans are most visible.
"We've got three Nile crocodiles in the front pond with the alligators." Mark tells us, "The rest of the crocodiles are in their own exhibits as you go around the park."
Here's where we learn about Gatorland Global, the conservation arm of the corporation.
We come to a pen with a single, very large alligator and hear,
"Jaws is a rescue. Jaws likes to fight. He was about to get himself killed or kill somebody so we kind of sectioned off this little area for him. Well water courses through so the water at its exit is warmer than the rest. He had two girlfriends in here earlier and they somehow found their way over there. So I guess they didn't want to live with Jaws. But we're looking for another girlfriend."
Just past Jaws is the wondrous handicapped-accessible zipline. You can see the towers around the park. One of the most exciting attractions is ziplining over alligators.
Gatorland Zipline Depot
Mark tells us, "We couldn't compete with the big parks with roller coasters, but we wanted an exciting ride. Something people could really do and, you know, that fits our nature, who we are in our culture. So we built that zip line in 2011 that goes all the way around the park. And right after we built it, we realized that people in wheelchairs can't climb our towers. And, in fact, nowhere in the eastern US that we look could anyone in a wheelchair get into a zip line. So we made this zip line, this single one right here is a wheelchair-accessible zip line."
But nothing is simple with this endeavor. That's probably why no one else had done it.
Mark continues, "It was easy to build the ramp. It took us about three years to figure out the harness system because people that have lower extremity paralysis are very sensitive to (anything touching their legs and pelvis) and the harnesses that we use for zip line (could be uncomfortable). So we developed a kind of hammock that we can get under them in the wheelchair and an electric lift picks up that hammock to lift them up out of the wheelchair. We clip them in, zip them down the line, and then we have a lift down there that will pick them up and safely lower them back to the wheelchair. And so it took us about three years to figure that out."
It didn't take nearly that long to learn they needed bird deflectors, so you'll see white tags along the thinner guidelines.
They also needed to make some post-production adjustments when they realized they hadn't calculated how much the line would drop when a 250-pound man was on it.
"The alligators got a little concerned when the people were brushing so close. We could imagine them thinking, "Oh, there goes another. Well, there goes another one." Oh yeah, just a slight error in engineering. We had to build that little runway there to keep the alligators from right underneath it. And one will occasionally find a way to climb over or get in there will come in in the morning. There's one in there, so we have to shut down the zip line for the day until we get him out."
It's a lot of effort to use the handicapped-accessible zip line. It takes four people 30 minutes to maintain both sides of the line. They charge $15, which doesn't come close to covering their cost. But for them, it's about the joy on the faces of the people who use it.
"We built it just to see the look on their faces. Because these people in wheelchairs, they spend their entire lives in that wheelchair watching their little brothers or sisters or other people do stuff they wish they could do to get them out of that chair, to sit down there and see the look on their faces. It's just worth every penny that we put on this thing to give them just a minute, get out of that chair, and do something cool."
One of the many touching stories was of a little British boy who was visiting. The family had four sons and had suffered great tragedy. One brother was in a wheelchair, one brother had died while playing superhero the towel cape he was using got caught on a bedpost and mom couldn't release it before he'd choked to death. The two families (British and Gatorland) bonded so fiercely, there's a memorial to the late son at one of the Magnolia trees on the side of the park. One brother loved alligators, he was ten and begged his folks to go to Gatorland.
So the boy who was in the wheelchair had been in it all his life. His two little brothers ran around the park and really enjoyed it. With dad's help, they got the wheelchair-bound boy into the harness. Let Mark tell you the rest of the story:
"So we got him up and got him locked into (the harness). He wore glasses and his dad was up there on this one with us and we're videotaping him and he's going "No, Daddy!" He's crying, going down because there's a handle you gotta pull to release it, and we're gonna pull the handle. "No, Daddy, no! I'm going to die, Daddy. No."
And Dad looks at us and says, "Pull it." So we do, and the boy goes flying down the line the entire way. I was down here receiving, videotaping, and receiving, and he shows up on the end, screaming, "I did it! I did it, Daddy." And all day long he was just "yeah, I did what they did." He's wiping his eyes. I mean, it just makes the world for me. It was so awesome."
It's a minute before we recover from the emotional strength of the story. Gatorland means so much to so many. It's an amusement park, live theater, an adventure, a conservation space, an education, and a joy that makes a difference in the lives of anyone who enters and allows it to.
The best part for them is the understanding dawning on people's faces or the joy in the eyes and tears of those that go onto the handicapped-accessible zip line.
They do it for the heart - it's an amazing endeavor!
Gatorland runs about seven shows throughout the day, three different types of three different shows, and about every hour and a half or so, one is going off around the park.
Walking along the trails, you may see deer, there used to be "Cracker Cattle," cattle that is considered uniquely Floridian and can eat palmettos, but you're more likely to see an American bison, a donkey, a Zebu (with a hump), and a variety of small animals visible as the train goes through.
Blondie, a Xanthic Croc
Continue to walk along the path and you'll enter the Crocodile section of Gatorland. You can see the critically endangered Cubans off to the right. But, front and center, meet Sultan and Blondie and seven of their four- and five-year-old babies in the next pen. Blondie, a yellow-hued, xanthic crocodile named for its rare color base, gave birth to "normal" crocodile dark tone appearing color since hers is a recessive trait. But chances are (Mendelian genetics if the siblings mate 25%) some of the grandbabies will have her xanthic coloring.
Their separation is a reminder that around the park Gatorland separates the alligators and crocodiles based on age (and therefore, size). The big ones will eat the little ones. They grow based on what they're fed and what the temperature is. When it's warm, their metabolisms increase. When it's cold, their metabolisms decrease. Here at Gatorland, they're well fed (about a ton of meat per week) so by six to eight years of age, they're big enough to enter the bigger animal pens. In colder areas or places where they don't get as much food, it can take 15 to 20 years to reach their adult size.
Next, the saltwater crocodile exhibits with two females, Salty Girl who's shy and hovers near the bushes and Lizzie, aka Lizzie Borden.
Next door are Dundee and Phoebe, also saltwater crocodiles. Dundee sneaks out the "back door" and goes to visit Salty Girl and Lizzie in their pond.
"So he'll go over there, spend a day with those girls, and then we'll bring him back over here with Phoebe. And he kind of goes back and forth. So he's got girlfriends that live in side-by-side apartments, and he sneaks out the back door and goes back and forth."
Phoebe doesn't like Lizzie or Salty Girl.
I wonder why
A pretty trill captures our attention, and we turn to see two kookaburras, one male, one female, flitting about a large cage. Turns out when Salty Girl moved from her last home (the owner was a well-respected member of the crocodile community (a legend) who died but gave her to Gatorland before he passed), she didn't acclimate well. She'd had kookaburras where she'd lived so these were brought over to make her feel more at home and it seems to be working. The female kookaburra, Baby Girl, is "crazy" (and could hurt you so keep your distance) but was the one there with Salty Girl out at Fred's place. Marshall, the male, actually arrived first. He kept Salty Girl company until they could work out Baby Girl's transfer. They hope that when Baby Girl feels amorous Marshall will meet her needs and they'll have kookaburra babies in the future.
The other saltwater crocodile male is Morton. He lives with Shelia. They've been together for decades but have a contentious relationship. He won't let her in the water, so Gatorland has provided her with a heat lamp at the side of her enclosure. Unlike Dundee's submissive females, Shelia fights back and even lost her foot in a fight. It feels like they should be separated, like, "get a divorce already." They don't want to be separated. They've created their own separate peace.
Crocodiles are shockingly like people in some ways.
Seeing them leads to the discussion about how to tell crocodiles apart. Males are much larger, sometimes 14 feet and up to 1000 pounds. The females grow to 9 feet and typically weigh only 250 300 pounds. The only way to tell them apart when their smaller is an internal examination.
"You can't just pick up their skirt and tell the difference."
The gender is based on the temperature of the water at the nest when they're hatching. The eggs become males around 30C (86F). They become females if the temperature is around 32.2C (90F). If the temperature varies, you're likely to get a mixture of boys and girls.
Breeding is critical to crocodile survival. They haven't had Saltwater babies in about eight years. Shelia is old, as is Morton. They don't know if they're able to have babies. Phoebe and Salty Girl both laid eggs last year but they weren't fertile, so they don't know yet if it's an issue with the girls or if the problem is Morton. They think this was Salty Girl's first batch of eggs and know that the first time that females lay eggs, they're usually not fertile.
"It takes them two or three years before they kick it in gear, and they really start producing some good eggs."
Maybe it's like a little test pancake
you always throw it out. Maybe she'll start having layers of eggs in the years to come.
The Author's Daughter with Blondie the Xanthic Croc After a Snack
We meet Brandon, head of Media Communications who takes over the tour. He takes us to all the alligator and crocodile feeding areas in the park. And even does a photo op one of those "never could've imagined" experiences you can have at Gatorland.
MaMae, a Cuban crocodile rules the roost in her alligator section. The staff speaks of her with awe. Also in the area are Ricardo, Chainsaw, and Lulu. Chainsaw is a girl who's "feisty as a chainsaw." She was not injured with a chainsaw and then brought here.
Fun Fact: Check out their name badges. Many places have the employee tell where they're from. At Gatorland, they tell you where they want to be. (Mark's is Go fishing everywhere, his wife's is "fishing with Captain Mark," Brandon's is "Gator Expert" so he's exactly where he wants to be.) That's forward-thinking.
Gatorland Alligators Ready To Eat
You'll learn more alligators by name. We visit with Cargo, Ricardo (Lucy was traded to a zoo, "She was a terror"), Coco, Chainsaw, and other females in a big pool of gators with MaMae standing watch. He speaks to the problem of the dominant female gator and how she doesn't let the other females into the water. Chiquita became the forward female and about seven or eight years ago started nesting and is now egg laying with a bunch of new babies born.
One of Ricardo's sons is behind the scenes paired with a female who's producing eggs. So not all the alligators and crocodiles are available for viewing in the park.
Brandon tells us more about the ongoing expansion and development of the conservation link. The crocodile enrichment coordinator works with groups in Jamaica and Cuba to protect the American crocodiles threatened there. They're being reintroduced into the wild there.
He uses Coco as an example of teeth loss. He tells us that gators go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in their lifetime. Crocodiles are similar.
That's one busy tooth fairy.
Brandon's understandably partial to the Cuban crocodiles.
"They're just super smart. They're small compared to big crocodiles, but they're the smallest big crocodiles, meaning they can get over 10 feet long, but they're the only known crocodilian to hunt in a pack. A group will surround a prey and attack."
They're critically endangered due to loss of habitat. Their main diet is a tree-dwelling mammal so they can jump up 6 to 8 feet in the air to grab their meals from the low-hanging branches.
Don't worry about your safety, though. The state of Florida regulates the size of the two fences for the enclosures and the distance between the two and they are strictly enforced.
Gatorland works hand in hand with the State of Florida's Department of Fish and Wildlife to help write some of the laws to protect alligators and crocodiles.
Past Gator Johnson Gourmet Coffee, we arrive at The Depot. Time to gear up, sign the waivers, and proceed with the Zipline!
The Zip Line Tour
With its seven towers, Gatorland's Zipline includes 5 zips and a 150-foot swinging bridge to walk across. You get to race your partner at the end.
The two guides hook you up and send you and catch (receive) you on the other end. You'll fly right over Gators and crocodiles.
This zipline is meant for all ages who exceed the minimum height of 36 inches tall and are under 275 pounds. This zipline has made the top ten lists from around the world.
Towers 8 and 9 are the handicapped-accessible zip lines that can be opened when it's busy or for visitors afraid of heights.
Leave everything in a locker (can't have anything dropping) and we're guided by well-seasoned young people who obviously enjoy their work.
Gatorland Ziplining Over Alligators
We climb the towers, zip across over multiple alligator enclosures, and climb higher to the next line. It's a thrilling ride. The rope bridge is absolutely do-able with holding on tight, looking straight ahead, and taking the next step. Remember, you're still harnessed, so you're fine. The payoff is the double race for the last zipline. While I started off fast, my daughter won easily. So weight isn't necessarily in your favor for this.
From the zipline, it was a walk back to an actual feed-the-alligator experience. We had a photo opportunity, which is another special offering for visitors, and two separate places to feed the alligators raw chicken. The show uses larger pieces or even entire chickens to show the gators in action.
Gatorland Adventure Hour
You'll meet crocodiles Big Boy and Lyle the Nile (the largest animal in the park, he's 4.57m (15 feet) long and well over 500kg (1000 pounds)). Delilah and Lulu are two of the largest female saltwater crocodiles. Lyle moved himself from where they'd originally placed him and so did Delilah, so they learned to let them have their space.
They have George, the only animal brave enough to go against Lyle, caught by a trapper off Lake George, standing by in case Delilah and Lyle don't work out.
Gatorland The Author With The Tortoise
To finish the day, we participated in the tortoise experience. The one large tortoise is over 100 years old but still mounts the 35-year-old female. He doesn't realize he can't mate with her, she's not even the same species. It doesn't stop him from trying. His shell is old and rough to the touch. But rub his neck and his whole body rises. Her shell is smooth except for the back where he's mounted her. She keeps her distance and relaxes in the afternoon heat.
Gatorland's love for the animals and focus on sustainability with adrenaline-rushing zip lines and private experiences with alligators and tortoises make for a wonderful day. Mostly, have a great time at Gatorland and learn why there's nothing to fear about alligators - as long as you give them the right of way - and then work to save the Cuban crocodiles.