One of the most successful alligator farms in Florida is also one of the best places to see nesting waterbirds.
Gatorland’s property straddles the Osceola – Orange County line on the Orange side, making it one of Orlando’s oldest attractions (the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour is the oldest). It was founded in 1949 by Owen Godwin and is still operated by his family more than 70 years later.
Originally named the Florida Wildlife Institute, Godwin, a native of Sebring, placed his attraction on the Orange Blossom Trail, one of the main roads vacationers used to explore the state. This placed the new park roughly midway between Silver Springs and Cypress Gardens. Florida tourism had been popular prior to World War II, but in the years immediately after the war, new attractions were quickly being added throughout the state as the new influx of visitors skyrocketed. This was the beginning of Florida’s Golden Age of Tourism.
In its earliest days, the attraction was very simple and sparse. The first buildings were little more than shacks with sawdust-covered dirt floors. The attraction included several Seminole Indians who lived on site and wrestled alligators for the tourists.
Within a few years, the Florida Wildlife Institute’s name was changed to what was hoped would be a more welcoming one – Snake Village and Alligator Farm. The name was eventually deemed to be less than successful, however. Gatorland likes to tell the story that many travelers driving by during this time would see the sign and speed up to pass quickly. Others would stop, but only the fathers and kids would go in the attraction – moms would stay out in the car.
Finally, 1954 sees the ultimate name change. Gatorland premieres as the “winning” name the same year its next door neighbor Tupperware Headquarters opens its doors. Around the same time as the name change, Godwin purchased a huge American crocodile from a breeder in Miami. Estimated to have been 15 foot (4.6 meters) long when it arrived at Gatorland, it was named Bone Crusher and would live at Gatorland for many years. Gatorland contended it was the largest crocodile in captivity though it was still some 5 feet (1.5 m) shorter than the general maximum American crocodiles can grow.
Through the 1950s and 1960s the park grew with new attractions – some of them experiments that were less than successful, such as a raccoon exhibit with a wholly nocturnal raccoon. Godwin also took time off to travel to places such as parts of Africa, India, Central America and Alaska to find animals for the park.
In 1962 Frank Godwin, Owen’s son, invented the now-famous entrance to Gatorland – the “gaping gator jaw”. Over the years, it would become one of the more memorable Florida attraction landmarks and possibly the best entrance to any of them, big or small.
In 1975 Owen Godwin died (1905-1975) and Frank Godwin became the new president of Gatorland. Not long after, Gatorland began a project of alligator research with both the Florida Wildlife Commission and the University of Florida. At the time, alligators were endangered, but they were slowly making a comeback in much of their native territory. Research focused on reproduction and developing better techniques on how to raise them in farms such as Gatorland.
Gatorland continued to expand. This included purchasing and developing adjacent properties. By the late 1990s the attraction encompassed 110 acres (45 hectares) and included wild swampland that would only be modified by a boardwalk through the habitat.
Gatorland has one of the largest collections of American alligators in the world, reportedly numbering well into the thousands. Also on display are many other crocodilian species as well as snakes and birds. The park have several Florida native mammals including bobcats, Florida panthers, white tailed deer and raccoons.
They have rare leucistic alligators, as well. Leucism is a condition similar to albinism, however it’s caused by the loss of several types of pigment, not just the melanin that causes albinism. This renders Gatorland’s alligators entirely white with the exception of strikingly blue eyes.
The park has a popular zip line course which visitors can ride for aerial views of the park. There are also shows that feed alligators to get them to be active for visitors and shows that show staff working directly with alligators. There is also small narrow gauge train known as the Gatorland Express that takes visitors on a tour around the park. The train was installed in 1965 and was created by the Allan Herschell company. The current locomotive replaced the original one in 2001. It was purchased from Train Rides Unlimited.
Much of the park is taken up by a long and fairly narrow lake. The lake is ringed by boardwalks and trees. Each spring, Gatorland is host to thousands of nesting birds including wood stork, white ibis, green heron, tricolored heron, great heron, little blue heron, anhinga, snowy egret, great egret, cattle egret and roseate spoonbill. At that time of year, birders and wildlife photographers comprise a large number of Gatorland’s visitors. This area of the park is known as the Breeding Marsh and is part of the reason why Gatorland is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Gatorland is one of the best alligator and crocodile parks in Florida. It’s quite similar to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, and both are well deserving of a visit. With its shows, Gatorland goes for a splash of drama and excitement and it’s “swamp walk” is equal to any nature boardwalk in a Florida state park.