Set in a natural cypress swamp – in a spot where most of the natural habitats are now erased from the landscape by development – Gatorland is not just a historic Florida attraction but an immersion into what this part of Central Florida used to be. Walk the boardwalks, marvel at the ancient reptiles, savor the birds, and go “oooh” at snakes.
Fees: $27 adult, $19 ages 3-12. Annual passes and Florida resident discounts make this a great place to visit more than once a year. Additional fees apply for special experiences like Gator Night Shine and the Screamin Gator Zip Line.
Open: 10-5 daily.
It’s amazing how many years it took me to get to Gatorland for the first time – my first visit was less than a decade ago – given my family’s love of natural attractions. I took the occasion of my mother’s birthday to take my parents their for their first time, and boy, were they sorry we didn’t go there back in the 1960s.
Founded in 1949 by Owen Godwin, it’s still a family park and the undisputed Alligator Capital of the World. It’s not an enormous park, but it’s so packed with wildlife that if you’re an avid photographer like me, you’ll easily spend most of the day there. It’s a birders delight, too. We arrived at the peak of breeding season, with the birds in bright and showy plumage, and spotted some species that we rarely see, like roseate spoonbills winging their way overhead. For the best view of the birds, follow the boardwalks along the main ‘gator pond and climb the three-story observation tower for a panorama of the ten acre breeding marsh and bird rookery.
Dad loved the train, of course. Debuting in 1965 as the Iron Horse, the little Gatorland Express circles the park, giving a different perspective on the animal enclosures. You’ll also find a splash playground for the kids, and lots of optional “Experiences” like shadowing a trainer or wrestling an alligator, for an additional fee, the most wild of which is the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line over the alligator pens.