Theme parks abound in Central Florida, but have you heard of Gatorland? Our inquisitive family spotted it in a tourist brochure and just had to check it out! We found a great mix of education and good old-fashioned kitsch. My three boys, ages 7-13, had a blast but they also learned a lot. Gatorland provides serious environmental education that doesn’t take itself seriously!
Gatorland’s Old Florida Charm
Central Florida certainly doesn’t lack for things to do, as most will agree. But while vacationing in nearby Winter Haven, my crew and I took a break from our Legoland Florida touring. The two major Orlando theme parks not being in the budget for this trip, we wanted to do something different. As a result, Gatorland intrigued me.
Opened in 1949 as a roadside attraction, Gatorland is now an 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve. My kids love animals, especially those slimy, scaley, and creepy. I’m blessed with kids with a natural talent for embracing the weird, thereby making almost anything fun with a good attitude. Off we went with enthusiasm!
It’s Not All About The Gators
Well, of course. Plenty of alligators reside at this attraction, many of them having been”relocated.” In other words, they were found terrorizing Florida neighborhoods and brought to Gatorland to ensure their safety and those around their former digs. There’s a breeding marsh on site and those baby gators are darn cute.
In addition to alligators, you’ll find snakes and panthers, animals that are frequently found in Florida. Walk-through a free-flight aviary with beautiful tropical birds. Feed emus. Crocodiles, turkey, fallow deer – there is more than enough to keep kids interested. Visit the ubiquitous petting zoo with hungry goats at the ready.
Getting Hands-On With The Gators – Literally
Our admission package included a few turkey hot dogs for feeding the gators from the docks. Y’all. Kids love this. Also in the water are fish with plenty of birds nearby, waiting to swoop down on those dogs. My kids had a blast throwing bits of hot dogs in and seeing which creature would get to it first.
The package also included a photo op with a gator after the gator wrestling show! I was truthfully pretty excited to park my kids on a gator’s back. The show itself was hilarious. The handlers were funny and self-deprecating. Pulling one of the alligators out of the moat area, the handler shared the Redneck Last Words which, coincidentally, my husband says are going to be MY last words: “I can do that. Hold my beer.”
I can reassure any parental fears about the post-show photo op with the above picture. First, notice that they tape the gator’s mouth shut. They breathe through their nostrils so this doesn’t cause them a problem.
Second, I left this photo uncropped so you can see how close the staff is during the picture. My youngest didn’t hold on tight enough to the gator’s mouth when he first sat down so the gator put his head down, pulled my son along with him and tried to buck him off. Mama Bear prepared a leap into that ring but the handlers took care of him and got him set up properly again. My son IMMEDIATELY called his dad to tell him about sitting on an alligator.
Don’t Forget Your Swimsuit
Nope – nobody swam with the gators. We visited in May when the heat was ramping up already. After a fun day exploring my crew’s spirits started flagging. The splash pad and adjoining playground cooled my kids down and kept the crankies at bay before the ride home. The view from the covered picnic area featured kids having a blast running free and getting soaked.
Other things to do at Gatorland include a train ride, up close animal experiences and a zip line. I vow to try that zip line out the next time we go back. And we are going back. My husband wasn’t with us on this vacation. but the boys are determined to bring their Dad to Gatorland to experience it in all its low-key, fun glory.
Looking for a discount? Various Florida tourism publications offer coupons or visit the Gatorland website to check out any current specials.