Going Back in Time —
Without Leaving the Present

Fantasyland... Tomorrowland... Adventureland... Frontierland... and Gatorland.
No, Gatorland isn’t the newest land at the Magic Kingdom. It’s one of the oldest tourist attractions in Central Florida. Your grandfather might have visited 60 years ago, and you can still enjoy the park today.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, March 5, 2010

An exhibit at the Orange County (Florida) Regional History Center

I’ve been visiting Orlando about once a year since early 1983. In those 27 years, I’ve been to a bunch of Central Florida attractions in addition to the Disney parks. Some, such as Six Flags Stars Hall of Fame Wax Museum, are long-gone. Others, such as Cypress Gardens, have changed hands numerous times. A number of them, including Kennedy Space Center and Silver Springs, were a considerable distance from Orlando.

The historic gator mouth entrance in 2010

In those 27 years, I never made it to Gatorland. That changed this week when my wife and I finally visited this old-time Florida attraction that’s still owned by the same family that founded it.

Gatorland is around 7 miles east of Walt Disney World—and it’s a quick drive, thanks to the Central Florida GreeneWay (Florida 417 Toll).

There’s no shortage of alligators here.

You’ve got to love an attraction that bills itself as “Orlando’s Best Half Day Attraction” and charges very reasonable admission prices.

If you’re someone who likes to take it easy and enjoy details, you can stretch Gatorland into an all-day visit.

White Gator Swamp is one of many alligator and crocodile exhibits.

While the premise of this article is that a visit to Gatorland is a trip back in time, that’s only partially true. Although the top reason to visit Gatorland today is the same as it was in 1949—a chance to see a lot of alligators of all sizes—the park has grown considerably since its early years. It wasn’t even called Gatorland until 1954. (The original name in 1949 was Florida Wildlife Institute, which then became Snake Village and Alligator Farm.)

The Gatorland Express Train is the only ride at Gatorland.

The Gatorland Express Train makes a loop around the back half of the park. The route includes a number of exhibits that are about the history of Gatorland. It costs an extra $2 above the basic admission, but you can then ride it as often as you want.

Where else can you feed alligators?

We didn’t try to feed the alligators, but you can buy turkey dogs for the purpose.

Daredevil Morgan grabs an alligator for the Gator Wrestlin’ Show.

There are three shows at Gatorland: the Gator Wrestlin’ Show, the Gator Jumperoo Show, and the Upclose Encounters Show.

Don’t try this if you see a gator at the side of the road.

You get a schedule when you enter the park.

Animal handlers Morgan and Eric interact with the audience.

All shows try very hard to be entertaining and educational, with performers who are as skillful handing an audience as they are handling the creatures.

Alligators can jump for chicken during the Gator Jumperoo Show.

Don’t worry. The Gator Jumperoo Show doesn’t use live chickens.

Another chicken becomes alligator food.

Earlier, you read that you can feed the alligators. The alligators can also feed you—in the form of deep-fried alligator meat or smoked alligator ribs at Pearl’s Smokehouse.

Pearl’s Smokehouse serves alligator and more conventional foods.

I didn’t eat any alligator meat this time, but I’ve had alligator meat in the past. Yes, the cliché is true. It tastes like chicken.

An observation tower provides 360-degree views of the breeding marsh.

The breeding marsh looks like it’s always been there, but it’s actually the result of a major expansion of Gatorland in 1991. A sign at the observation tower explains:

“The breeding marsh is home to 100 female and 30 male alligators. They breed once each year in the spring. In June the female will build a nest out of sticks and vegetation and lay an average of 35 hard shell eggs. To ensure survival of the hatchings, the eggs are removed and placed in a special incubator where they will hatch in 65 days.”
A boardwalk offers close-up views of alligators and birds.

We were too early for the alligator breeding season, but our timing was perfect to see the thousands of birds who choose Gatorland as the location for their nests each year.

The park has a large population of great egrets.

With so many trees in Central Florida, it was surprising to me that so many birds would choose this location—especially considering the risk of landing in the wrong spot and being eaten by an alligator.

The Gatorland rookery is home to many nesting birds.

It turns out that there’s a good reason. The birds’ natural predators, such as raccoons and opossums, are kept away by the alligators. So it’s a safer location for nests.

The Swamp Walk is a boardwalk through a natural wilderness.

We enjoyed our visit very much. If you’re looking for something new to do the next time you’re in Orlando, you might want to add Gatorland to your itinerary too.

Not surprisingly, the exit is through a gift shop.

Fastest Ride at WDW
Mysteries of Bonnet Creek

© 2010-2011 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated February 18, 2011.

Photographs of Gatorland: March 1, 2010, by Werner Weiss.