On a 98-degree day in July, I took my family of five to Gatorland. We are normally a family of four, but our 10-year-old nephew was visiting us in Orlando for the week. How do you impress a 10-year-old boy? With gators. Lots and lots of gators.
We have spent many a day at Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld, but we had yet to explore Orlando's original theme park. Gatorland was founded in 1949 with a 15-foot alligator, said to be the world's largest, as the main attraction. Today, the park maintains that Old-Florida feel. Guests enter through the 15-foot jaws of an alligator into the main building, then down boardwalks over alligator-infested waters and through indigenous snake exhibits. (One snake enclosure was completely empty, just to keep you guessing.) You will not find 3-D rides and high-tech attractions here. But that hasn't stopped families from England, Korea, Canada and all over the U.S. on a steaming day in July from seeing what they've come for: masses of alligators and crocodiles.
After viewing rare, leucistic white alligators and 13.5-foot Chester "the dog snatcher," we ducked inside the Upclose Encounters Show. The hosts were the perfect combination of playful and knowledgable, sarcastic and silly that appealed to the sense of humor of a 10-year-old, and—let's be honest—me. During the show, the hosts unlocked a series of mysterious crates, revealing everything from a tarantula and a water moccasin to a humongous python (Eek!). While some guests opted to actually hold the massive snake, our party remained on the right side of "the line of death."
Nearby, crowds gathered at the Gator Wrestlin' and Gator Jumparoo shows, while others sought shade along the wooded Swamp Walk, meandering through cypress trees over Shingle Creek, the lifeline of the Florida Everglades. Next, my husband took our younger two boys to feed the animals at the petting zoo then cool off at Gator Gully Splash Park.
Meanwhile, my nephew and I set our sights a bit higher. One of the park's newest additions is the Screamin' Gator Zipline, located on the backside of the park and also the most scenic. Our guide Denise, who hails from Canada, has been leading zipline excursions for more than 10 years. She may have been melting in the Florida sun, but you could tell immediately she knew the ropes.
From seven-stories-tall towers, we flew over trees and alligator-filled pits on a series of five ziplines and one swinging bridge. Throughout our excursion, Denise pointed out various alligators, Cuban jumping crocodiles and Nile crocodiles, along with a collosal old croc from the park's 1949 opening that was featured in "Jurassic Park" and "Lake Placid." We even flew uncomfortably close to several swarming buzzards, but a sign assured us they had eaten yesterday. The zipline provided the perfect amount of thrill-factor, not to mention a great way to catch a breeze.
Once firmly on the ground, we headed to our last stop: Adventure Hour, where we stepped inside—that's right—inside the gates to feed the alligators. Feeding alligators is never permitted in the wild since it alters the animals' behavior toward humans, but under Gatorland's expert supervision, guests can get close to the water's edge and chunk meat at a pile of hungry alligators. Why would anyone do this, you ask? For the photo to prove we did it.
- Though concession stands are located throughout the park, it's a good idea to bring snacks and bottled water, especially in the summer.
- Bring bathing suits and a towel for the splash park.
- Though the park is the least expensive of Orlando's theme parks ($18.99-$26.99 and half-price for Florida residents), most of the experiences cost extra and also require a reservation.
- If you plan to zipline, wear longer shorts and closed-toe shoes. Any photos must be purchased separately, and personal phones and cameras must remain in a locker.