If you’re in Orlando and either all Disneyed out or don’t want to spend the kind of bucks it takes to get into either Disney World or Universal Studios, there are other options. Gatorland is one of them. It’s exactly what the name sounds like, a park full of alligators.
Gatorland has really grown up, or more precisely modernized since the last time I went there back when my kids were kids. I remember walking through the park looking at all the alligators big and small and reading all the signs about their alligator breeding program and wondering what they did with them all…until we found the snack shack. Yup in those days alligators were all over the menu. We took a camel ride somewhere in the back of the park back then too.
Times have changed. Now the signs are about the types of birds and things you see hanging out with the gators. There’s only 1 alligator option on the menu and it’s the most expensive thing. The camels are gone and there’s a lot more places to buy food or souvenirs. There’s even a zip line now – for an additional fee. The zip line goes over the alligator breeding swamp, but the area under it is fenced off.
They have also added a petting farm with barnyard animals – mostly goats. There’s a train ride that costs a bit extra, and for the little ones a small splash park area. Alligator wrestling is still on the daily schedule, but now it’s more of an alligator education show than actual wrestling like it once was. Of course they still use half-grown alligators and not the really big guys. I guess the alligator wrestlers want to keep their limbs intact.
Other shows included one where they have audience participants open mystery boxes containing unknown animals which (at least at the one we went to) turned out to be tarantulas, a pygmy rattlesnake, and a big boa constrictor. Both that show and the alligator wrestling included photo ops at the end for an additional charge. They also had the Jumperoo show where they hung chicken from overhead lines and big alligators and a crocodile popped up out of the water to eat it.
Gatorland’s basic entry fee makes it one of the most affordable parks around, but if you added too many of the additional options it could start to get a bit pricey. Still way under the cost of a day at Disney or Universal though. The zipline adds $40 to the price of admission, but as zip lines go that’s pretty reasonable. It looked fun, but we didn’t go on it because we didn’t want to pay that much and the grandkids were probably too small for it anyway.
The park has lots of different alligator displays from tiny baby alligators to enormous ones. They also have some crocodiles, lots of birds, and a few displays with other animals. Some of the birds are part of the park. Others are wild and just live there because they want to. There are parrots and a walk-through aviary full of parakeets which will land on you if you buy one of the seed sticks they sell there and ignore you if you don’t. These birds are all former pets that ended up in the park when their owners died or couldn’t keep them any more. The parakeets loved my sister’s straw hat. Mostly they just sat on it, but some nibbled on it a bit.
Wild birds love the park. Egrets, ibis, and herons dot the alligator habits while buzzards and storks hang out on roofs and in trees. Some of the egrets hitch rides on the alligators and other egrets stand center stage while people gather before the shows. While waiting for the jumperoo show we saw several buzzards fighting on a roof.
The well-fed alligators in Gatorland don’t eat the adult egrets, but these wild birds nest far enough above them to stay out of reach. Egrets nest above alligators to keep other predators like raccoons and possums from raiding their nests, but pay for that protection with any babies that drop from the nest becoming dinner for the alligators. The birds will actually intentionally eject some chicks if the population is higher than their food supply can support.
One display had a formerly wild alligator who would have been executed for his habit of prowling neighborhoods and eating dogs if Gatorland hadn’t taken him in. His small quarters with a bit of land and a small pond are something of a permanent jail cell. Most of the others had more spacious quarters, especially the ones living in the breeding marsh. Several white ones lived inside a building where a sign said they wouldn’t survive in full sunlight. Only one of the white ones was albino without any pigment even in the eyes. The others were leucistic, which means they have partial pigmentation and blue eyes.
Free parking and not much of a crowd set Gatorland apart from the other theme parks we visited. It’s a fun and interesting way to spend a day as well as educational if you read some of the signs scattered throughout the park.