Orlando’s Gatorland doesn’t have cute furry animals or spectacular rides. It doesn’t have ‘cast members’ or ‘model citizens’ to wish you a good day. Its signs look homemade and frankly, they’re a bit un-P.C. It brings you up close to some of the kings of the wild, and then serves you deep friend chunks of them for lunch. But Gatorland has a sense of humour, an all-American charm and a reasonable entry fee. And it has a Screamin’ Gator Zip Line as Cameron and I found out when we soared above a swamp with bite…
I went to Gatorland Orlando – so bite me
Orlando theme parks take themselves pretty seriously. And with good reason. Did you know that surface area of Disney World is a comparable size to Manchester? And its pastel pink icon supports a real life Tinkerbell zip wiring from its turrets every day of the year including Christmas Day. How does she keep that tutu clean? There’s no arguing its place in popular culture and world class attractions.
Meanwhile just down the road Universal is a thrilling, high energy ride of a park, with coasters like The Hulk that leave you clinging onto gravity for dear life. And SeaWorld is a heavyweight at nudging your eco conscience while tugging at your heart strings. I was pretty much blubbing at both the dolphin Show and Dinner with Shamu. And so it goes on. The main parks keep a close eye on each other’s prices and rides. They are all vying for your dollar and the dollars you spend on souvenirs. They are all masters at marketing and knowing exactly what you want, even if you don’t.
And then there’s Gatorland
Gatorland has crocs. And alligators. And more crocs. And more alligators. It has a woman selling photos with an alligator around her neck. It has signs designed to raise a smile and a huge plastic jaw at the front door that you can stand in. It has a couple of snack bars. It is pure theme park in that everything in it is related to one thing. The shop is lined with fake fur toys and teeth. But Gatorland doesn’t have queues. Or high budget rides. Or Tigger. It’s more like regular America than Disney America.
Are they real or are they pretend?
I’m not even sure the gators are real. At first. They don’t move, or snap or gobble up kids in the way you expect a gator to do. They just lie in the sun, much like the guests at the Nickelodeon Hotel where we are staying. Occasionally they let a turtle climb onto their backs.
What? Turtles are food not friends, surely?
Yes, technically turtles are great gator chow. But not here. Here the animals are so well fed that they’re all good friends. Now how Disney is that?
But I’d be dinner if I fell in the swamp
“It’s not the alligators you have to watch out for. It’s the crocs,” jokes Megan Talbot as she straps me into a harness and prepares me for a five stage zip wire that will carry me along 1200 feet of cable over a swamp filled with 34 American Alligators and 3 Cuban Crocodiles, and ponds containing 2 saltwater crocs and ‘pops;’ the oldest alligator in the park. It’ll also blast me over a stretch of water filled with 300 Nile crocs and a breeding marsh filled with 130 more alligators. Did I mention that Gatorland has a zip wire? I was kind of hoping it would be closed. I felt a bit like I’d had enough flying after my evening at iFly.
I open my eyes and soon wish I hadn’t
I always shut my eyes as I push myself off a zipwire platform. If I kept them open I’d never have the bottle to jump. When I open them halfway down the wire, I find myself flying above the heads of some ugly looking critters. It’s a bit scary, but at least I’m up here and they’re down there.
There are five wires at Gatorland, so as you progress along the wires you kind of get used to the crocs. By the end of the ride, I’m bigging up my bravery and feeling a bit like a real explorer. Yet even though I’ve done the infested swamp I still know very little about these scaly creatures. At an alligator wrestling show I’m told the best defence if you meet one in the wild is not to run, but to flip it over, which temporarily puts it to sleep. The demonstrator shows us how you do it. Seems simple enough.
“And to wake it up you just give it a tickle like this.”
What idiot is going to want to tickle a gator?
At the end of the show the rest of the stadium lines up to tickle a gator. I go off to order one deep fried. Gator bites are actually on the menu here. Eating one in the company of their brothers and sisters may go against your moral compass. I refused to even think about eating whale after I went to whale watch in Iceland, but for some reason it doesn’t feel as mean to give a ‘gator bite’ a try in a gator theme park. The bad taste in my mouth comes from the flavour.
Was that just a toothless wonder back there?
As I pick rubbery fishy bits out of my teeth I ask Director of Entertainment Mike Hileman if the gator in the wrestling show was just a toothless wonder selected for its placid character and lack of interest in humans. Or did it really have bite? He assures me that the animals used in the show are real, and they do bite. Roughly twice a year his staff get nipped. “We choose the pretty alligator for the photographs and shows, whether or not it has a bad disposition,” he smiles, “We have a healthy respect for them; we know what they can do.”
But he echoes Megan’s advice that it’s the crocs that are the real menaces, “Alligators are couch potatoes. They don’t have a lot of energy. They’re like 180 pound marshmallows that don’t move very fast. But the crocs are athletic and springy.” A marshmallow? That’s not the simile that immediately springs to mind. They certainly don’t taste like marshmallows.
It’s not unusual to see an alligator in Florida. Millions of them live in the state’s 10,000 waterways. In fact the park came about in 1949 when Owen Godwin noticed people stopping their cars to view the animals in a patch of swampy ground on their land. “They just put a fence around it and started charging,” says Mike with typical Gatorland honesty.
The peaceful theme park
This park doesn’t have the high thrill of Universal. But it does have some definite plus points. It’s cheaper to get in, and less of a bun fight to experience what’s there. “You’ll find it’s peaceful here and you don’t feel rushed,” says Mike, who describes the attraction as ‘a bit cheesy.’
I watch a rare leucistic or ‘fierce ghost’ gators sun themselves. It is indeed as white as a fierce ghost.
“I zip wired over your cousins earlier,” I tell one of them. A visit to this theme park definitely leaves you feeling braver coming out than you went in.
Brave enough to stand in the massive ‘jaws’ of the entrance? Oh yes.
No one ever died at the entrance of a theme park. Well not as far as I know.
Gatorland is open from 10am-5pm seven days a week. You can also book onto a special ‘night shine adventure’ with flashlights at dusk. You can pay to ride the zip wire, or just enjoy the park at a fraction of the entry fees at some of the other parks. If you want to do the Screamin’ Gator then don’t bring sandals or you will need to buy shoes in the shop. (Like we did) Children under 3 are free and strollers and wheelchairs can be hired for those who can’t walk very far unaided.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to Visit Orlando and Gatorland for our visit to the attraction some call the ‘alligator capital of the world.’ All the experience, views and opinions expressed are as ever our own.