Text and Photos by Kelsey Walters
This month, I wanted to finally go somewhere that I have always been wanting to visit. I came to Florida every year on vacation as a kid before moving here. The allure of theme parks and attractions always pulled us in, but there is a park that was around long before Disney showed up in 1971.
Fun Family Things to do in Orlando, Florida
Gatorland, in the heart of Orlando, was established in 1949 by Owen Godwin, and is certainly nothing new. At the time of its inception, “The Florida Wildlife Institute” was nothing more than a $300 investment allowing a close-up view of wildlife in its native habitat – essentially a cleared out pit left after Godwin supplied dirt for the new highway. Many people had some reservations that you may share today. Why pay to see what we have approximately 1.3 million of in our home state? Gators can be found in every county in Florida, so why not head to your local watering hole to check one out?
The answer is simple. Would you like to wrestle a 14-foot, 500-pound dinosaur? I didn’t think so. There’s a reason why you don’t stick around for too long when you see a wild alligator, and that’s because those things are downright mean. They haven’t survived this long by being cute and cuddly.
Things to do and See at Gatorland in Orlando
Gatorland is one of the only places where you can not only see alligators, crocodiles and other absolutely terrifying species up-close and personal, but you can watch them in a completely native habitat.
Unlike a zoo, the 110-acre park is largely free of cages. Some of the more ornery and scaley residents, such as Chester the large dog eater from Tampa, require their own bachelor pad for the protection of the park’s other animals.
Other animals require special accommodations, like the four extremely rare leucistic white gators (pictured below). Unlike albino animals, these alligators’ coloring is the result of a partial loss of pigmentation in multiple types of pigment, not just melanin. Leucistic animals retain the pigment in their eyes, which also helps to distinguish them from albino creatures.
The History of Gatorland in Florida
Gatorland has remained true to its roots as a wildlife preserve, after all these years, by offering the incredible experience of the Breeding Marsh.
This allows you to step into a literal gator love nest from the safety of a boardwalk directly over the water, without the fear of having a limb removed. The marsh is so natural that it was used in the filming of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
Despite the habitat’s name, the park isn’t in the business of breeding and selling wildlife. In fact, a majority of their thousands of alligators and crocodiles are rescues. The park is known for purchasing nuisance gators from trappers, saving them from being killed for their meat and skin. One lucky inhabitant was actually retrieved from a New York City sewer.
This place has far more to offer than just a bunch of giant lizards flopping around in the water to impress some lady gators. They have a continued investment in public education, including shows that demonstrate the sheer power and force these animals have. Nearly 70-percent of an alligator’s body is made of muscle, compared to our approximate 40-percent.
Think about that next time you spot one in the neighborhood retention pond or community golf course. Even the park’s largest resident, weighing about 1,400 pounds, can jump seven feet out of the water for a tasty treat…or someone too close to his turf.
You can get a bird’s-eye-view of the park with the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line. Over the course of five lines, totaling 1,200 feet, you can zoom over parts of the Breeding Marsh and other gator enclosures.
There are several ways to get even closer and have a real wildlife encounter. The simplest is a photo opportunity. You can hold a real baby gator or snake and snap a pic, or if you’re brave enough you can saddle up a 7-foot monster during the Rookie Wrestlin’ experience. For $10, you can hop on the back of a live gator which has just been wrestled out of the water (pictured below).
I can tell you from experience that this isn’t a tamed and timid animal. When it was my turn to hop on, the wrangler tried to scare the living daylight out of me right as I came in contact with the gator’s huge jaws by yelling that I was holding it wrong. At the same time, it started writhing and thrashing underneath me, making for a slightly unsettling but thrilling experience. I thought ahead enough to take a preventative tinkle break, so there were no…accidents, but my hands were still shaking for awhile afterwards.
For a more involved experience, you can try your hand at being a Trainer for a Day, or tag along with the professionals during Adventure Hour, the gators’ feeding time.
This blast-from-the-past park offered a full day of things to see and experience, and kept the Old Florida feel that we all know and love.
Monday – Sunday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.