Monday, November 06, 2006

Gatorland is Gutted!!

In this era of glitzy theme park attractions, where multi-million-dollar roller coasters and state-of-the-art, special effects laden shows are the norm, it's hard to imagine a simpler time when Mom and Pop attractions were the bread and butter of Florida tourism. Anyone remember Xanadu, the Home of Tomorrow? Sadly, after sitting dormant for years (other than an occasional stint as a squatting ground for the homeless), it was recently demolished. Water Mania survived up until a few months ago, but now it is being leveled to make way for the "Shoppes of Celebration" (having comendeered our name, even though it is across 192 from our fair town).

But one great kitchzy Florida landmark has survived and thrived for the past 57 years: Gatorland.

At left is the world-famous (well, okay Florida-famous) entrance in its original form. Every now and then we pass it if we're out on the Kissimmee end of Orange Blossom trail, and I always make the mental observation, "We really need to visit Gatorland someday."

But early this morning, the big news story was that the venerable landmark attraction was in flames. Here is the fire at its worst point, transforming the jaws into those of an angry, fire-breathing dragon caught in the midst of an inferno.

Here is the Gatorland entrance amidst the smoky aftermath. Thankfully the landmark "jaws" are made of concrete, unlike the old tinder-wood buildings, so they are scathed but still standing.

Here are the sad remains of the main building. The jaws bear the black battle scars of the morning's inferno.

As far as I know, they haven't figured out the cause of the fire yet. But according to the news, the attraction will rise like a scaled phoenix from the ashes. Here is a quote from the president, lifted from the media (the photos above are media photos, too):

"This ain't our first rodeo," said President Mark McHugh, whose wife is the granddaughter of original owner Owen Godwin Sr. "In 57 years we've had hurricanes, gas crisis, recessions, 9-11. A fire's not going to stop us."

The good thing is that the fire was contained in the front of the property. Gatorland's animal habitats are scattered around, so the only thing lost besides the gift shop/offices/main building were two snakes and an unfortunate croc.

I hope that they will reopen because in all the time I passed and made a mental note to schedule in a visit, I never quite got around to it. After all, it had been there for over half a century. Surely it wasn't going anywhere any time soon!

I should have remembered that God has an ironic sense of humor. He demonstrated it for me in similar circumstances a couple of times in Illinois. The most notable was with one of my favorite restaurants, Die Bier Stube (which featured German cuisine, in case the name wasn't a dead giveaway). It was an old hellhole that had been around for eons, housed in the most fire-trap building you can imagine. But their food was the absolute best, from the giant, plate-sized schnitzels that came in a dozen or more varieties to the salad bar featuring delicious home-made selections.

Thankfully we got to eat there a few times; then, one day, as we approached the restaurant, we realized that there was no parking for what seemed like miles. We had apparently arrived in the midst of some sort of car show. Traffic was jammed, roads were blocked, and it was just a huge balls-up in general. I remember my famous last words: "Let's just go eat somewhere else. Klaus's will be here forever." (Klaus's was the local name for the place, sort of like Market Street Cafe is Max's to long-time Celebrationites.)

A few weeks later, we returned...our taste buds and bellies were primed for a lovely slab of schnitzel. As we approached the building, I observed to my husband, "That's weird. There's parking right in front!"

A moment later, both of us could see why. We were pulling up to a gutted, fire-scorched structure. Klaus's had burned down literally the day before! So much for, "They will be here forever."

A few years later, we won a gift certificate to a Chicago restaurant in a charity raffle. We kept putting off our visit, and lo and behold! One day, the top news story was that very restaurant burning to the ground.

Actually, as I type this, an ancient childhood memory has resurfaced. My mother and I used to frequently pass a restaurant called "The Surrey" on south Western Avenue. I remember the name because even as a toddler, we were big on show tunes in our house. At the tend age of four or so, I knew all the words to "Surrey with the Fringe On Top" from the play Oklahoma. Each time we passed, she would say, "Someday we'll stop there to eat." Someday never came, and then one evening we passed and saw the place surrounded by fire trucks and squads. Another one bites the was an incincerated heap of rubble.

Of course, Gatorland is not a restaurant, and unlike the three eateries I've mentioned, it will (hopefully) be resurrected (actually, a new Klaus's was opened 45 minutes away from the original location; we ate there pretty steadily, considering the distance, but it never quite measured up to the original).

But still, it won't quite be the same. We'll be stepping through the same (albeit repainted) portal, but 57 years of history is gone so it will just be sloppy seconds. Like Klaus's, which lost a diningroom-full of German treasures (the walls were lined with dolls, steins, knick-knacks, and antiques, and the owner literally cried in the street as it all went up in the conflaration), most of Gatorland's memorabilia is now toast. We will only see a second-tier re-creation.

Still, I am glad that they will reopen. The last thing we need is another subdivision or big box retailer out there on Orange Blossom Trail. "Old Florida" is fast disappearing, and Gatorland is one of the last remnants. When it is finally rebuilt, you can bet that I will be one of the first customers in line. No more "somedays" for me, because too often someday never rolls around.

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