No matter whom you challenge to play word association, the top responses to “Florida” are the same: Vacations. Sunshine. And alligators. From Alligator Alley, the blade of interstate that slices through the southern Florida Everglades to University of Florida football and basketball teams and their ubiquitous fans, the Sunshine State is all about gators, upper and lower case. So when you plan your next vacation to sunny Orlando, include a visit to Gatorland, the nearby family attraction that bills itself as “The Alligator Capital of the World.”
The 110-acre theme park and nature preserve is home to thousands of alligators and crocodiles. And much more. You won’t find high-tech exhibits — no Transformer Gators, no iCrocs. But you will encounter a quaint charm intact since Owen Godwin opened the park in 1949 as Florida Wildlife Institute.
The park began as a 16-acre stop-off along a busy highway where tourists could view iconic Florida wildlife, watch a Seminole wrestle an alligator, and buy a souvenir on the way out. As Florida tourism grew, so did the park. It became Gatorland in 1954 and began adding attractions, educational exhibits and more species. Gatorland today includes a spectacularly diverse array of wildlife, plus modern updates like a restaurant, an expanded gift shop and a splash pool for kids. Even so, its present owners remain faithful to Godwin’s original vision. That’s no surprise; they’re his family.
Whatever new touches you might encounter, the core of the Gatorland experience is, and always will be, alligators. That’s evident the moment you pass through the famous main entry — those giant, wide-open reptilian jaws. The park is open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily, but even a full day of your Bluegreen vacation may not be enough time to experience everything. That’s OK. Single-day admission prices are modest enough, but full-year passes to Gatorland cost less than single-day passes to some of the area’s bigger attractions.
A typical day at Gatorland might include a visit to Alligator Island. Hundreds of alligators and crocodiles hang out here, including some of the largest in the park. You might catch a glimpse of Alf, the 15-foot, 1,000-pound croc and the biggest, baddest creature in all of Gatorland. You can take a nature stroll through the cypress along the Swamp Walk boardwalk or climb up the observation tower. Ride along a park tour aboard the Gatorland Express locomotive train. Take the kids to the petting farm and then to Gator Gully Splash Park. Lunch at Pearl’s Smokehouse, named for Mr. Godwin’s wife. Sure, you can order a burger, but why pass up the gator ribs?
In the mood for some live action this Bluegreen vacation? Yep, they still wrestle gators here, except now it’s done in a comfortable, 800-seat arena by professional wranglers and is more education and demonstration than sport. Then there’s the Gator Jumparoo, where large alligators leap 5 feet out of the water to snap food from a trainer’s hands, like dolphins. Take a turn as Trainer of the Day. If you’d like to go up”scale”, for an extra fee you can take a two-hour lesson in gator handling from an expert, and even get hands-on wrangling experience.
You really will be “swamped” with options at Gatorland if you decide to go during your next vacation to Orlando. And there’s no doubt that when it’s time to leave the park’s engaging chief inhabitants, you and your family will have a hard time saying, “See you later, alligators.”