In these days of genial zookeepers, it’s hard to imagine a man like Florida showman Owen Godwin, who established Gatorland in 1949. More of a reptile-fixated P. T. Barnum than an environmental enthusiast, Godwin traveled the world collecting toothy critters for his zoo of gators and “jungle crocs.” But the days of aggressive collecting are gone. Most of the alligators are born right in the Gatorland swamp, and Gatorland naturalists will tell you of their efforts to rehabilitate injured or displaced animals brought to them from all over Florida.
For more than 65 years, Gatorland has existed as a roadside wonder. Before the days of magic castles and studio back lots, tourists flocked to the Sunshine State for its beaches and wildlife. Sprinkled along the highways that linked the state’s natural attractions were tiny outposts of tourism—must-see roadside stops meant to break up the monotony of travel. Gatorland fell into this category. The park was ripe with tourist appeal—who can resist a park that hawks Florida’s most infamous resident, the alligator?
Today, Gatorland seems to disappear in the clutter of touristy Orlando. But rather than fall victim to its own kitsch or wither in the Disney glare, Gatorland has adapted enough to proudly call itself “Orlando’s best half-day attraction.” It doesn’t try to be one of the highfalutin theme parks in its backyard. Though the attraction has grown to 110 acres, the whole place is barely big enough for a good-size Walt Disney World parking lot. But nowhere else will you see this many gators and crocs, and nowhere else are they celebrated with such abandon. In short, Gatorland is a hallmark of Old Florida made good.
The park recently added a zip line, at heights up to 65 feet above the ground. The zip line carries the brave over ponds holding Cuban crocodiles, known to jump out of the water to snatch the occasional low-flying bird. It comes with a big ol’ price tag, too, though it does include park admission.
The alligator breeding marsh is one of Gatorland’s most unexpected attractions. Set in the middle of a park of zoolike cages and enclosures, this large body of water is home to nearly 200 alligators in their natural setting. You’re looking at the real ranch behind all the wrestlin’ and jumpin’. A flotilla of a couple dozen gators hovering placidly by your feet is enough to make you reconsider leaning over the railing for a better photo. Try out each floor of the three-story observation tower for different (and safely distant) perspectives.
The marsh is also a haven for bird-watchers. Every year, more than 4,000 birds make their home at Gatorland, including green, blue, and tricolored herons; cattle egrets; and cormorants. At feeding time, the trees along the boardwalk marsh fill with waterbirds, including several rare and protected species.
TOURING TIPS For the best view, bring binoculars. It is truly spectacular to feed the gators here (a bag of fish is $5). There is a smaller feeding area elsewhere, but you’ll get more of a show if you take the goodies here. On one visit, a family brought several loaves of bread to feed the gators. It was a fascinating sight, and it attracted what seemed like hundreds of creatures. Check the trees on your right as you walk toward the petting farm, with the marsh behind you. During summer visits, they host hundreds of nesting egrets and herons, with the accompanying chirps of their young. Because the second level of the observation tower is above the trees, it provides a rare look at these birds.
Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from early Frebruary through mid-June, Gatorland offers a photographer’s pass. Photographers and birders can enter the park at 7:30 a.m. and stay until dusk. Here is a website with amazing pictures taken during these outings.
For all there is to see and do at Gatorland, check out Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, & the Best of Central Florida by Bob Sehlinger and Seth Kubersky.
Gatorland entrance: The original uploader was Bobak at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
View of the Gatorland Breeding Marsh: By Jamie Sanford from USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons