by Paul Ruben
Attending the grand opening of Legoland Florida this winter left me yearning for the charm of the original Cypress Gardens.
Portions of Cypress Gardens remain in this Lego-themed reincarnation of the property, but it felt like an afterthought. While watching the children’s entertaining misadventures in the Lego driving school, my thoughts drifted to other classic pre-Disney Florida roadside attractions.
And then the thought hit me… Gatorland! This 110-acre (0.45 sq km) park and wildlife preserve was located not far from my Orlando hotel, and I had never been there. Have you? I’ll bet that of the 25,000 IAAPA Attractions Expo attendees each year, maybe only a few hundred have. Shame on the rest of you.
Gatorland is located just a few miles from the Orange County Convention Center, a hidden jewel of a park. It was founded by Owen Godwin in 1949, and is still privately owned by his family. Billed as the “Alligator Capital of the World,” Gatorland features thousands of alligators and crocodiles, a breeding marsh with boardwalk and observation tower, reptile shows, aviary, petting zoo, swamp walk and educational programmes.
Legoland had alligators, but theirs are made of plastic bricks. Leaving Legoland (it was jammed on opening day anyway), I found my way back to Orlando and Gatorland. Free parking? Yes, indeed. Now that’s nostalgic. I walked in and found gators to the right of me and gators to the left of me. In a word, Gatorland is authentic. I watched people leaning over the protective fences watching gators, and the gators watching people. The gators were looking for a hand out.
Eventually I wandered back to the 800-seat gator wrestling stadium. It has a large sand-covered stage with a surrounding moat. During the 20-minute show, a wrangler jumped into the reptile-infested waters and hauled a thrashing gator onto the stage. He said he was paid minimum wage. You couldn’t pay me enough to do this. He toyed with the gator, and told the audience some little-known facts about the creatures. For example, I learned that a gator won’t attack you if you are carrying a flashlight. But it really depends on how fast you are carrying it. At the conclusion of the show, he invited members of the audience to wrestle the alligator and have their photo taken.
I couldn’t resist, but only because the gator was a female named Mona. This was inter-gender wrestling at its finest. Here’s the picture to prove it. OK. I have a confession. The gators’ jaws were taped shut. But it was still great fun. I think Mona liked it, too.
Gatorland has an Allan Herschell train ride that meanders through its swamp and around the property. It’s a classic ride. It also has 1,200ft of zip lines from Global Highline Adventures that carry riders over the marsh infested with what else? Gators. This offers a great view for those of us who have faith in thin flimsy steel cables.
See you later, alligator.