Glimpse Bygone Florida at Kissimmee’s Gatorland

Before the wizard academy came to Universal, before dolphins leapt at SeaWorld, before Walt Disney claimed his plot of swampland, there was Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida.  An original Florida roadside attraction since 1949 – Gatorland has introduced curious tourists to Florida’s fauna for over 60 years.  The 110 acre park preserves a microcosm of “Old Florida” before theme parks, multi-lane highways, and souvenir stands came to dominate the landscape.  In doing so, Gatorland embraces its kitschy, backwoods, low humor roots, but also contains fantastic photo opps as well as high thrill adventures.  Continue reading for highlights of our visit to Kissimmee, Florida’s Gatorland – billed as the area’s “only theme park with bite and attitude.”

GATORLAND

This past March, I was in Kissimmee, Florida with 13 college students for an annual alternative break trip to Give Kids The World Village.  We volunteer two shifts/day with “wish families” – children with life-threatening illnesses who wish to visit any of the attractions in Central Florida.  Our morning started at 7:30am serving breakfast at Give Kids The World, and Gatorland generously invited us to visit during our afternoon break before the evening volunteer shift.  It’s not often this group of Western New York college students gets to see alligators in their native habitat, so we jumped at the chance.

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We arrived at 1:30pm, entered the park, and immediately came face-to-face with 100s of alligators.  If your trip to Florida isn’t complete without seeing an alligator, then you need to get to Gatorland.  There were big gators, small gators, wet gators, dry gators, gators, gators, everywhere… the whole place was lousy with gators, a veritable gator infestation.

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It was already nearly time for the 1:45pm Gator Jumparoo show – “the show that made Gatorland World famous!”  So, we quickly found a viewing spot and lined up on the rail of the arena.  Over loudspeakers the slow plink-plunk of banjo strings was heard as the “Dueling Banjos” theme from Deliverance opened the show (nice touch… a little creepy, but nice).  Two burly overall-clad fellers (Bubba and Cooter) ambled out, hopped the fence, awoke the gators, and entertained the crowd with groaner one-liners – think Larry the Cable Guy (voice of “Mater” from Pixar’s Cars) style.  I told you Gatorland embraced their kitsch.

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The climax of Gatorland’s Gator Jumparoo show occured when Bubba and Cooter hooked chickens (purchased from the grocery store) to a wire and wheeled them out over the gator filled water.  As it was March, and temps were still relatively cool for these cold-blooded critters, the gator activity was not quite as lightning fast as advertised.  However, the alligators eventually broke out of the water for everyone to get a close look at the powerful creatures.  Seeing the extraordinary reptiles spring to life was an impressive sight.

Gatorland, Kissimmee, FL

In addition to the Gator Jumparoo, Gatorland features a number of short, 15 minute performances including, Gator Wrestlin’ (you can even sit on an 8-9 foot alligator in the Rookie Wrestlin’ Experience for an extra charge) and Up Close Encounters – an interactive comedy show that drops snakes, spiders and other creepy-crawlies onto the outstretched hands of jittery tourists.  Yet, my favorite part of Gatorland was strolling the grounds, learning about the alligators, and seeing the diverse Florida wildlife on display.

Rare Giant White Alligator – largest collection of white alligators in the world

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Florida panther

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Giant Tortoises

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The park was a fantastic spot for nature photos, and provided a glimpse of Florida prior to development.  There was a raw and simple elegance to being surrounded by the nature of the swamp.  It was easy to forget you were steps away from the congested corridor that lead to the World’s #1 vacation destination.

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Surprisingly, Gatorland isn’t just nature, animals, and shows.  They also have a Gator Gully splash ground, a perfect spot to cool off on those steamy, hot Florida summer days (included with park admission).  I loved the “swamp shack” theming of the area… “TIN Roof… rusted.”

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Families could also purchase a wristband for $2 giving unlimited train rides around Gatorland’s Jungle Crocs and Breeding Marsh area.

Finally, Gatorland recently added the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line.  I didn’t get a chance to try the Zip Line, but watched folks whooshing high above the park while I sat in the Up Close Encounters show (brilliant zip line placement by the way; made me want to ride).  $70 gave you a 2-hour session on the course with five different zip lines.  The fee also included all-day admission to Gatorland – not a bad deal.

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By 3:30pm it was already time to leave Gatorland.  We needed to head back to Give Kids The World Village in time for our evening volunteer shifts with the wish families.  We didn’t get to see all of the park during our brief 2 and 1/2 hour visit, and a family could easily spend half a day enjoying all the shows and attractions of Gatorland.

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In this day of high-tech, multimedia, theme park spectaculars, it would be easy to poke fun at Gatorland, and they invite the ribbing with their self-deprecating humor.  Despite that, if you embrace Gatorland for what it tries to be, and IS – a slice of Americana seasoned with just the right amount of low-country kitsch – your family will have fun and smile.  My students and I left Gatorland with a new experience and an uncommon adventure we certainly can’t replicate at home.

For more of pictures of a Gatorland, check out the gallery below.  Note: the photo gallery requires Flash Player, click here to view all the photos from Gatorland if your device is not Flash equipped.

Admission to Gatorland costs $23.99/adult (ages 13+) and $15.99/child (ages 3-12), and you can save $3 by purchasing tickets online ahead of time.  There are often deals and discounted tickets available to Gatorland including a fantastic Florida resident admission special for $9.99/person (ages 3+).

DISCLOSURE: Our group was hosted by Gatorland and received a complimentary admission in order to experience the attraction.  However, all opinions expressed are those of the author.  For more family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on Twitter and “like” our Facebook page, too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.