They’re big, green, and could easily defeat most of us in a wrestling match any day–so why is it that visitors to Florida want to see alligators up close?
Alligators have been a big draw to Florida for many decades, whether someone chooses to see the toothy creatures while exploring waterways and swamps on an air boat tour or by taking a peek from the safety of an alligator-oriented theme park. In fact, many of the roadside attractions from the 1950s are still open and entice visitors with promotions of 14-foot long gators and (even bigger) crocodiles.
If a recent visit to the 110-acre park Gatorland in Orlando reveals something, it’s that alligators can still draw a crowd–specifically, 400,000 annual visitors a year, says Michelle Harris, Gatorland’s director of marketing. Nicknamed the Alligator Capital of the World, Gatorland, established in 1949, is bigger than many of the other alligator attractions in Florida. The elements of what attracts visitors to see gators are all there–an opportunity to see thousands of gators up close but at a safe distance, watch mere humans wrestle with the creatures, and even get the chance to touch baby gators…not to mention the chance to see a bevy of other animals.
Although eco-tourism draws many to Florida, the prevalence of air boats on a number of the states busier’s waterways has made natural alligator spottings a little harder, Harris says. (Contrary to popular belief, alligators are usually shy and want to retreat from the noise of a boat.) Some visitors are also drawn to Gatorland and similar attractions because their parents visited several decades ago, she adds.
Gators, Gators, and More Gators
So, Gatorland aims to give visitors exactly what they want to see–gators, says Tim Williams, director of media production and “Dean of Gator Wrestling,” as emblazoned on his khaki work shirt. “We’ve talked about whether we need to change our image. People come to Orlando to see the big three–Disney, Universal Studios, and Sea World. We’ve decided to be the best at what we can be,” he says. This means offering a generally low-tech attraction that’s also lower priced than the bigger parks. “The thing we’re good at is not overexceeding expectations.”
So just what do you see when you visit an alligator attraction like Gatorland? On a post-Christmas breezy, sunny day–weather created for Florida’s tourism bureau to showcase the state–guests speaking a multitude of languages crowded in the park to spot the reptiles. Holiday country music plays in the background as visitors wait for Gator Jumparoo, where alligators compete for lunch, which is store-bought chicken hung above the water. As the banjo strums of “Deliverance” start, two hapless potential Gatorland “employees”–Bubba Just Bubba and Cooter (both of whom you can friend on Facebook)–compete to get their gators to jump high for the chicken. Bubba Just Bubba and Cooter rouse the crowd on to shout for their gators to attack the strung-up chicken as they get thismuch closer to the actual gators (“He’s going to die!” one boy shouts).
Alas, weather in Florida had been cold for a few weeks before this particular day, and the chicken only attracts mild interest. The gators seem to prefer laying on top of each other and sunning themselves in the water.
Moving on, visitors can make their friends at home think that they are now a gator wrestler. For $5 a pop, Gatorland employees who are dressed like Crocodile Dundee can lead you inside the Gator Wrestlin’ Arena, where you can sit on the back of gator (the animal’s mouth is taped shut) and purchase your photo taken with him (or just have a friend take the photo). As Gatorland’s brochure reminds us, “Don’t try this at home folks, it takes a trained professional to pose these ornery critters.”
You can also watch the park’s Gator Wrestlin’ Show, where some poor schlump (actually, he seems like a well-trained professional) pulls a gator out of the water surrounding the Gator Wrestlin’ Arena stage circle, touches the gator more and more frequently, and then kneels down and puts his chin right above the gator’s snout. The alligator’s jaws open, and for a split second, the crowd holds its breath. Then just as fast as the flash bulbs go off, the alligator and “wrestler” have had enough, and the man retreats away.
Visitors to Gatorland also can see white alligators, crocodiles (often confused with gators, crocs are generally bigger and have more teeth), snakes, birds (including an aviary where you can feed parakeets who will group together on your shoulders and arms), farm animals, and more. Other attractions for kids and families include a train that encircles the property and a splash park. Gatorland is also home to a large nature preserve where gators and birds live in natural elements.