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May 6, 2014

Gatorland Orlando - A Truly Wild Adventure

  
I vividly recall our first family visit to Gatorland in 2005 - an outing to celebrate my son's 6th birthday. I had long been intrigued by the curious roadside attraction. In fact, it felt rather wrong to have neglected one of Florida's original gems for so long. My husband had been there long before any of us... he is a cracker after all. And if you don't know what a "cracker" is, you too are due a visit to Gatorland.


Founded in 1949 by Owen Godwin, Gatorland is a family owned and operated, 100+ acre attraction that combines a wildlife preserve and theme park, drenched in Florida history. While it may lack the fireworks, rides and six feet tall costumed creatures of its neighboring competitors, Gatorland is no less of an adventure, and it is much kinder on the wallet. Daily admission is $26.99 for adults and $18.99 for children, but coupons are available through the Gatorland website, and Florida resident discounts are usually in place as well. Annual passes are offered for less than the cost of two days admission. 

 

Gatorland is home to thousands of alligators and crocodiles, but that's just the tip of the iceberg! Within this preserved natural Floridian wilderness, you'll also find snakes, panthers, bobcats, tortoises, and enough bird species to excite a seasoned ornithologist. And speaking of the science of studying birds, did I mention Gatorland's photography pass? This specially priced admission pass allows guests early entry on select days for amazing photography opportunities. A fine time for exploring the glorious bird rookery with peak animal activity, and limited guest distraction. Considering my obsession with photography, I am actively contemplating this option myself. I can't seem to visit Gatorland without taking at least 300 photos. 

  

One reason for the limitless photo opportunities is the unpredictable nature of Gatorland. When you don't rely on robots and mechanics, but live animals, it's almost impossible to have the same experience twice. Gatorland features a trio of entertaining shows: Gator Wrestlin', Jumparoo and Up Close Encounters. You never can tell what to expect from any of these performances, but they've never failed to amuse. The hosts of the Gatorland shows are not only brave, but witty. The comedic banter mixes well with the excitement, and even... dare I say... education of the show routines. (Speaking of comedy, you really must make a point of reading the signs scattered throughout the park. More than a few times, I've belly-laughed at these.) 

  

  • Up Close Encounters holds more than a couple of surprises, and I wouldn't even consider letting all of the secrets out of the crates. Let's just say... be careful what you volunteer for! Creepy crawlies and creatures with too many legs or none at all will send shivers down your spine during this entire demonstration.
 
  • Gator Wrestlin' always leaves me breathless. I'm never quite sure if the performers are just that brave or simply insane, but it's quite a show either way. More than a couple of times, I've heard those colossal jaws snap shut during a stunt, and let me tell you... it's a very real, very daunting experience! Before and after each performance, for an additional fee, you can even have your photo taken on the back of a gator. Of course, I'd never be so bold, but I didn't have an objection to my son participating. Not sure if that make me mother of the year or not, but he seemed satisfied.

 
  • Jumparoo doesn't offer the aspect of audience participation, and count your blessings for that! Jumparoo is the gator feeding frenzy! Forget leaping lizards... here, you'll find leaping gators - leaping over four feet out of the water, to be exact! This is an amazing demonstration of the true nature of the alligator's power and might. 

Gatorland may not be crawling with thrill rides, but there is one new attraction that certainly does aim to thrill - the Screamin' Gator Zip Line. Soar 1200 feet over menacing crocs and gators above the marsh and rookery below on this one-of-a-kind zip line adventure. For those who prefer to stay grounded, a peaceful ride on the Gatorland Express train offers a relaxing tour of the park's grounds. Little ones, as well as the young at heart can seek refuge from the brutal Florida heat with a break at the playground and splash park - one of my favorite midday stops. 


There's no shortage of animal experiences at Gatorland. Separately priced experiences allow guests to feed the alligators in small-group encounters, but you can also find various feeding areas stationed throughout the park, often for just pocket change. Bird lovers can immerse themselves in an abundance of feathered admiration in the Lorikeet-filled Very Merry Aviary, which is just a short walk away from the farm-original petting zoo full of goats, cows, chickens and more. I can't think of a more personal, inspiring experience than a walk through the rookery and breeding marsh. You learn to keep your eyes peeled real quick when on this quiet trek. A variety of birds have set up homes in the greenery throughout the marsh. Look closely to find their nests, which are often protecting eggs or newborns! 


Though you won't find a plethora of creatures stationed around to greet you, don't underestimate the appeal of Gatorland's Swamp Walk - an approximately 2500 foot boardwalk built into a preserved swamp area. This is a genuine study of pure Florida wetlands ecology. Another ideal spot for nature photography - the trees are astounding!



Gatorland is so much more than a tribute to history, heritage and wildlife. It is a community staple in Orlando. The educational contributions of one of Florida's oldest attractions are extensive as well! You'll find Gatorland representatives at a wide range of events and schools throughout Central Florida. They also welcome scouts, schools and other groups, hosting private, corporate and educational events. As much as I'm a Disney girl, I never miss an opportunity to steer visiting friends and family away from the hoopla of our more elaborate amusement parks for a more unique experience at Gatorland. 

I have included a selection of my Gatorland pics here. While I do not have the patience to upload the thousands of photos in my complete collection, my carefully selected favorites can be found on my Gatorland board on Pinterest. As always, click on any image above for full size.