Saturday, June 16, 2007

Go Go Gatorland!

Way back in November, I lamented the fact that I'd never made it to Gatorland, a true artifact of "Old Florida," which unfortunately suffered a major fire at the beginning of that month. Gatorland predates Mickey and crew by nearly three decades, having debuted in the late 1940s. It's one of those kitschy, touristy things that had been on my to-do list even since we moved to Celebration. Then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, it was removed from the picture because of the blaze.

Fortunately, most of the damage was confined to the entrance and giftshop. Gatorland managed to reopen within a month; unfortunately, its trademark "gator jaw" entrance (shown below) was out of commission, but the shows and exhibits were pretty much unscathed:

My determination to visit was renewed, although it still took half a year to follow through. I'm happy to report that my hubby and I finally made it to Gatorland this weekend and that it was just as kitschy and touristy as I had hoped.

As the name implies, Gatorland has plenty of...alligators. The scaly, razor toothed reptiles are definitely the main attraction. They come in all sizes, from egg/baby.... fully grown. As you can see in the photo below, you don't just gaze at them in passive surroundings. Sure, there are lots of gator pools where you can watch them lazily float and toss them bits of hot dog (which will graphically demonstrate just how fast they can move when food is involved). But there are also shows in which you'll see just how much annoyance a gator can take without chomping a chunk out of a human:

There are actually three shows. The photos above were taken at the gator wrestling exhibition. The wrestler gets much more up close and personal than I'd ever want to be to all of those teeth. Yes, that gator in the picture above has his mouth open, with his teeth mere inches from the wrestler's neck. Don't try that one at home (or at Lakeside Park), kids! There is another show featuring various venomous critters like cottonmouth snakes, scorpions, and the like (the Wildlife Encounters show), but my favorite is pictured below...the Gator Jumparoo show:

As you can see, the trainer's fingers are just above a hungry gator's mouth. I wouldn't trust that scaly sucker to figure out where that man's finger's end and the dangling food begins. As the name implies, the show features gators jumping out of the water to feast on whole raw chickens.

Out of the three shows, that one was definitely the most popular. People were lining the viewing area 20 minutes ahead of time; early arrival is critical because if you don't get a spot up against the fence, you are not going to see the action.

One late arriver was trying to convince people to let her kids into a good viewing spot. Unfortunately for her, cranky tourists who have been standing around for 20 minutes in 90 plus degree heat to secure their own spot don't have a lot of sympathy for Johnny Come Latelys. Eventually she wandered off, her optimism unrewarded.

The other shows are not as competitive for a good viewing spot. They take place in arenas with plenty of covered bleachers. Each show is repeated several times a day, so even if you arrive by noon, you'll have time to catch them all.

There are interactive experiences, too. My favorite was the lorikeet aviary, where you can buy little cups of sugar water to attract flocks of fine feathered friends:

I did discover one small fact the hard way: they love to chew on moles! I couldn't figure out why one of them was chomping like a vampire on my neck until the attendant explained that moles look like food to them. Sure enough, that's what the little sucker had been after. Ouch! They will also preen and groom your hair and lick you to get the salt from your sweat. They're not shy about ganging up on humans; you can easily end up with half a dozen or more perched on your person at a time. If Hitchcock's "The Birds" sends you into an anxiety attack, this is not the place for you.

I happen to own a self-assured cockatiel named Bradley; my fiesty little feathered fiend has survived over ten years living in the company of three crafty cats, so he is an assertive bird. Thus, I am used to being accosted by, perched on, and chewed on by assertive winged critters, so I felt right at home in the lorikeet flock.

Other hands-on experiences included petting/feeding areas with goats, sheep, a cow, deer, and llamas; photo opportunities with gators and snakes; and even the chance to sit on a gator's back (albeit one with its mouth taped shut). Be prepared for lots of nickle and diming; for example, you pay for the feed at the petting areas, the bird nectar, and a batch of hotdogs if you want to feed the gators in various areas throughout the park. You also pay for the photo ops, and for certain poses (i.e. sitting on the gator and holding the giant snake from the Wildlife Encounters show), there is a "sitting fee" that doesn't include the actual photo. However, for those two, you can use your own camera if you have one. It was no worse than any other Orlando tourist trap, but be prepared because the costs can rack up pretty quickly if you have demanding young 'uns.

There is also a train ride (also at an extra cost) that takes you on a brief circle tour; the most interesting part is the jungle crocs, although you can see those via a walking trail, too. If you have kidlets with you, bring their bathing suits so they can cool down in the new "splash zone" water playground.

There are plenty of concessions with food, drinks, and souvenirs. Since we have already tasted gator, we skipped the opportunity to feast on a variety of gator meats. But we did indulge in the fresh-squeezed lemonade and iced lattes, and I only resisted the dazzling array of fudge through a supreme effort of will.

We purchased the requisite t-shirts (how could I resist one emblazoned with the legend: "Gatorland, This Place Bites!"?) and a photo featuring hubby and I holding a gator and snake, along with a matching frame. Then hubby spotted a souvenir that he absolutely had to have...MOLD-A-RAMA!!!

I mentioned Mold-A-Rama in a previous blog entry, since it's a staple at the Museum of Science and Industry and other touristy venues in Chicago. As native Chicagoans, both hubby and I have fond childhood memories of plugging in quarters and watching the magical injection molding process produce an instant figurine that pops into the little drawer, hot and exuding a distinctive plasticky odor that will stay with me forever. I picture myself at 100+ years old, blind and deaf, babbling and drooling in a nursing home without having said a coherent word in a decade. One day they'll take me on a field trip to a museum or zoo featuring those machines; they'll wheel me past, my nose will twitch, and I'll yell "Mold-A-Rama!" as clear as a bell.

Hubby plugged in two bucks and was rewarded with a warm, waxy, stinky little gator figure. His inner child was definitely pleased.

All in all, it took us about five hours to cover every inch of Gatorland. There were a lot of people, but considering that we're in the season when the line for Soarin' at Epcot typically runs two hours long, I hesitate to use the word "crowded." It was actually a pleasant change of pace to visit a place where we weren't caught in a crush of humanity, swimming upstream among sweaty, swearing theme park commandos.

I was a little disappointed not to be able to get my photo in front of the famed entrance, but that was only a minor glitch. Even post-inferno, Gatorland is a worthy stop for anyone who wants an adventure in nostalgia at one of Florida's oldest attractions.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ha-- I just touted you on Gatorland and its Mold-O-Rama in an earlier entry. Glad you made it. We thought Gatorland was a hoot and my husband had to get his own blast from the past souvenir, too.