“Step back,” she said.
My eyes met hers. I stood on the edge of a wooden platform facing her, both of us high in the air. A lagoon filled with alligators stretched out below us.
My childhood nightmares of crossing bridges over rivers teeming with alligators flooded through me. And my feet cemented firmly to the wooden boards. All of my calming mantras and meditations flew from my head.
“You mean ‘off the platform’?” My voice squeaked. I could feel the fear rising inside.
“Yes.” She smiled, a coaxing kind of smile a teacher might give a shy student, to urge them into joining a class group activity. But I was no youngster, and with age comes stubbornness and fear.
I looked past her to the five people gathered behind her. Eagerly waiting. And watching. One woman raised her camera, ready to capture the inevitable moment when I complied.
I’m not ready to go, I wanted to say, but they were ready for me. I felt like I was in one of those group exercises in trust, where one person falls back and their team members catch them. But would someone catch me?
The Alligator Breeding Marsh
Only moments before I was walking alongside those same people. Together we climbed a wide set of wooden steps and up to the alligator breeding marsh observation tower inside Gatorland, an Orlando theme park dating back to 1949.
A young boy beside me paused, to look over the railing. “Whoa,” he said. His tone was deep and humbled in a manner that only young boys who are honestly impressed can muster.
My eyes followed his line of gaze down to the three 10-foot alligators sunbathing on the grassy base beneath the tower. Whoa indeed.
Around us in the breeding marsh, over 130 huge alligators resided, 30 of them male. They swam through pea-green waters and lingered beneath a rookery of birds.
A tangle of trees rose from the lagoon. Egrets, herons, and anhinga bounced on scraggly tree limbs, attempting to quiet their babies by shoving food into their tiny throats.
Beneath the trees and the flurry of feathered activity, alligators sought shade and maybe hoped for a snack to fall their way. We would be riding the zip line that stretched across it.
One by one we filed up the steps, waiting for our turn to jump. A trio of valiant young school boys went first, sailing through the air across the gator-filled lagoon with wide smiles and open arms. Then a Japanese couple. Finally, I reached my spotlight moment on the platform.
Confessions of a Gator-Phobe
I confess, I am a gator-phobe. I came from Up North, New Jersey, where I played in glacial lakes without cause to worry.
When I turned nine, my parents moved us to Florida. With their sparkling springs, the waters of the Sunshine State seemed so friendly and inviting. Until I learned about alligators.
Descendants of prehistoric beasts, with razor-sharp teeth and scaly skins, they are found all over the state of Florida. The thought of them lurking in the water terrified me.
Even when I began kayaking as an adult, seeing a gator would cause me either to freeze or to drop my camera and paddle away quickly. My heart would leap to my throat, and I would be gripped with panic.
It was time to face my fears.
I gave the alligators below one last look, took a deep breath and the moment of faith came. I stepped back, off the platform and into the air.
Flying Over Gators
The line attached to my body harness held me aloft, high above the lagoon filled with alligators. I was flying.
I knew in that moment why the Wright Brothers were obsessed with flight. It’s pure freedom. A blissful adrenaline rush.
The launch platform grew smaller as I flew farther away. The lagoon stretched out around me and I soared above it. Birds. Alligators. Nature. I could see it all.
I felt the blast of fresh air over my body. Flying free. Worries, concerns, and gator-fears forgotten. Feeling surprised as my feet touched the deck, I reached the landing platform all too soon, the thrill still buzzing through me.
Gatorland’s Screamin’ Gator Zip Line and Gator Gauntlet
The Screamin’ Gator Zip Line adventure gives park guests the ultimate bird’s-eye-view of the 110-acre Gatorland theme park. Get your adrenaline pumping by tackling a suspension bridge before flying at speeds up to 30 mph over crocodile and alligator enclosures.
More than 1,200 feet of zip lines cross the alligator breeding marsh. Five zips are connected by seven towers set around the central alligator breeding marsh lagoon. Safety is a main concern, so two experienced zip line guides accompany each group to lead guests through this 45-minute park thrill.
Gatorland opened the Gator Gauntlet in 2016, the first accessible zip line. It allows guests with mobility challenges the opportunity to zip 350 feet over the alligator breeding marsh and draws visitors from around the world.
To zip, you must be over 37″ tall and no more than 275 lbs. Everyone must sign a waiver, wear closed toe shoes, and dress appropriately for zip lining.
Alligators are carnivores and prefer an all meat diet, so all loose items, cell phones, and cameras must be stored in a secure locker at the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line Depot during the zip line adventure. A Gatorland photographer will be on hand to capture the excitement, leaving you free to enjoy your adventure.
The Screamin’ Gator Zip Line is $69 plus tax, which includes the park admission. Reservations are required. Reserve a spot by phone at 407-855-5496 or on their website.
Gatorland is located at 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
About Sally White
An award-winning outdoor writer, family travel blogger, and artist, Sally White has been unsuccessfully avoiding alligators since the age of nine. You can read more about her and her family adventures in the water and on land on her website at The Adventures of Mom.
Disclaimer: Sally was provided a visit to Gatorland to review various aspects of the park for us, as Sandra still says “no way” to zip lines, gators or not! Sally is Sandra’s younger sister and a member of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.