Founded by the late Owen Godwin and still family owned and run, the park nestles in 110 acres of prime Florida swamp, just ten minutes from central Orlando. Half of the acreage is devoted to the animal displays, the gators, the snakes and the shows and the remainder is an untouched forested swamp, through which visitors can walk on a raised walkway. This means that although the iconic alligator-jaws entrance, dating from 1962 , looks out onto a main road, once in the park, the visitor really feels as if he or she is in a quiet backwater of the state, with the trees providing a gorgeous backdrop on three sides of the park and a fine panoramic view.
Being in the industry can make one a pedant, always on the look out for things that could be done better, areas in which refurbishment is needed etc. Attractions that can appear exciting and enticing on paper can seem commonplace and humdrum upon closer inspection. However, this seemed to me a park which, if anything, is undersold by its marketing literature. Once through the entrance, it quickly became apparent that this was a thoroughly professional operation, with superb infrastructure, careful design and great attention to detail. An indication of an attraction being on the ball is often the signage. If faded in the sun or tatty at the edges, signs point to a lack of care. Gatorland’s were crystal clear, informative and engagingly written in the lingo of some Southern “good ol’ boy” (listen to their park’s voice mail for a taster!), managing to both impart useful and interesting information about the animals whilst retaining a sense of fun, a tough trick to pull off.
The walkways throughout the park , the bridges and the 3 story observation tower by the big lake were all well constructed, aesthetically pleasing wooden structures. The waterpark area was designed to fit in with the theme of the park, with two enormous crocodiles the base for a bank of waterguns and 10 foot snowy egrets spouting water. One of the pleasures of Gatorland was the enormous amount of bird species either calling it home or passing through. I saw three species of heron, along with the turkey vultures, kites, egrets and a solitary osprey which swooped down over the lake. A superb blog is maintained on the Gatorland site dealing specifically with its abundant birdlife.
Alligators are the big draw of course and these are showcased in an array of different sized pools. Babies and 3 footers each get their own ponds as do the various species of crocodile and caiman on display. The main marsh area is home to the biggest gators and the observation towers and walkway across the marsh allow the visitor to get really close to these prehistoric- looking beasts. There is also a display of native Florida snakes, a petting zoo and a number of shows and events running through the day.
At the “Upclose Encounters” show in which visitors were given first hand experience of a variety of frightening and/or dangerous creatures, we were shown tarantulas, a Burmese Python and a beautiful Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, who rattled her tail with appropriate gusto, turning it on for the crowd. The experience was made memorable though, by the two keepers – Donny Aldarelli and Rob Ranley – giving the talk, who riffed with the audience and delivered a finely tuned comic performance. Nina from New York had a giant spider in her hair and Vince, a cop from Minnesota, held the python but it was very much the warm blooded keepers were the star of this particular show.