Two monster swamp buggys. A bunch of crazy swamp buggy drivers. A sleazy theme park manager and a wild ride through pine flatwoods and swamps. A skink masquerading as an aardvark. Did we forget “Flat Buddy?”
It was a crazy kickoff at Gatorland when we arrived for the ribbon-cutting of their new ride, the Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure, and the new Gator Joe’s Outpost. Local politicos – Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer sent a surrogate with a stand-up cutout of himself, while the mayor of Kissimmee appeared in person – and tourism officials joined several generations of the Godwin family along with members of Gator Joe’s family to kick off this new section of the park.
A family-owned business since its start, Gatorland was founded by Owen Godwin, Sr., who grew up in a place familiar to Florida Trail hikers, Rattlesnake Hammock in KICCO. Young Owen would catch rattlesnakes and show them to tourists disembarking at what’s now a ghost town. Godwin and his wife Pearl carved a wild Florida attraction out of the swamps along US 441 between Orlando and Kissimmee in 1949, and now the third and fourth generations are busy keeping the 110-acre wildlife park both genuine to its roots and updated for younger generations. Part of that update is sass, Florida-style. Most of the signs posted around the park have asides to them, like these.
Launch point for the new adventure is Gator Joe’s Outpost, honoring the legacy of long-time Gatorland employee Ernest “Gator Joe” Brown. He raised thousands of alligators, and according to the park, “had a special knack for getting them to eat and grow quickly.” They’d recognize his voice when he’d yell “Gator! Gator Boy!” across the ponds and come to him to get fed. Hired in 1958, he worked at the park for more than 60 years, and some of his family still wrestles and wrangles alligators there today. Gator Joe’s Outpost is the check in point for the Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure and will eventually do the same for the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line.
As for the new ride? Let’s just say it’s nothing like any swamp buggy we’ve ever been on before. When they tell you to stow your camera bag under the seat and buckle in, believe it. Hang on to the grab bars, too, for the rough and bouncy ride. Developed by the staff who run the ride, the crazy storyline involves a park within the park called “Gator Gardens” which pokes gentle fun at the not-so-authentic attractions that Florida’s been known for since Gatorland came around. You’ll run across an encampment in the woods, plunge through a big pond full of alligators, and discover the alligator graveyard where famous alligators go to die, all while chasing down a crazy swamp entrepreneur named Swampy Sal.
Off-roading was fun, but we also like the gentler side of the park where you get up close with wildlife. On a walk through the breeding marsh, we saw dozens of roseate spoonbills along with countless herons and egrets hanging out with the monster alligators, the oldest of which is 68 years old. A ramble along the Swamp Walk takes you for a half mile and more of boardwalk through a lush cypress dome, where it’s not uncommon to see leopard frogs and even cottonmouths in the inky water below.
A loop through the crocodile section brought us close to Nile crocodiles, and a visit to the Baby Gator Marsh gave me a chance to hold a hatchling while John took photos. During the grand opening ceremony, Gatorland President & CEO Mark McHugh mentioned the marsh, saying “It’s like being with a bunch of puppies. Except they aren’t puppies. And they bite.” When a handler shows you how to hold the hatchling, that’s not a problem. I was surprised it had a slow rhythm to its breathing and slow heartbeat, but it was a reptile, after all.
Walking along the old wavy blue walk connecting the newer Baby Gator Marsh and panther exhibit behind the Gator Gully Splash Park over to Pearl’s Barbecue and the Swamp Walk, you can see all that Gatorland was in 1949: a collection of ponds with boardwalks, each pond filled with alligators – smartly sorted by age and size – and bustling with bird life. Neither of us had been here in years. We came for the big to-do and ended up rambling around the park for almost four hours, delighted to see waves of parents with youngsters who were thrilled to see so much Florida wildlife. Especially alligators. After all, that’s the point of it!
The sign in the parking lot says “Parking $19.49” … which is crossed out and then “Free today” written in. Unlike most theme parks, Gatorland has always had free parking. Buy your tickets out front or online, with single-day admission under $30 and annual passes under $45. Optional experiences like the off-road adventure, the zipline, and training and feeding programs cost extra, but are discounted for annual passholders.