View of Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida on a sunny day.

Caution: Sharp Teeth Ahead

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An exhilarating day at Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida!

I could feel the weight of a hundred beady eyes taking in my measure as I crept with slow slinking steps down the boardwalk that ran along the Breeding Marsh, a giant 10-acre lagoon located at the heart of Gatorland and mating headquarters of its namesake residents, 100 females and 30 males all told. Scattered scaly-backed clusters floated in various states of awake under the Florida sun, none smaller than seven feet long and many a great deal longer, their broad gnarl-toothed snouts stretched into naturally gruesome grins.

What got my hair standing on end, however, was the wheezy grunt and heavy thump of something unseen behind me. Logically, I knew there weren't any alligators on the boardwalk-a few layers of tightly woven wire fencing separated us from them. But my heart still leapt in my throat at the sounds, and I still squeaked like the prey I probably resembled and skittered in the opposite direction pumped full of adrenaline. My next destination: Upclose Encounters.

The bleacher-style seats looking onto the staging area reflected Gatorland's general visiting populace: chattering clusters of children on chaperoned field trips, smaller throngs of less closely watched teens, vacationing bands of families, the odd couples and seniors enjoying a leisurely afternoon. Volunteers were called, mystery boxes opened, creepy crawlies (a hairy tarantula, a pygmy rattlesnake) revealed, and factoids about them interspersed amid a well-rehearsed comedy of errors led by two cheerful staffers. ("It's a man eating snake, ma'am. You have no need to worry.")

Gatorland Gator WrestlingAnd thus, the Gatorland experience unfolded. Throughout the day, I encountered a combination of interactive presentations such as handlers who dangle whole chickens to get the alligators to "jump" for their food in the Gator Jumparoo Show. The Gator Wrestlin' Show played to a huge crowd as daredevil handlers got into the ring with the alligators. Map-guided meanderings through the park take visitors past animal viewing areas, including four ultra-rare albino alligators, crocodiles, snakes, a pair of Florida panthers, a few tortoises and parrots in addition to the expected gators.

Aboard the chugging Gatorland Express tour, we move on tracks around Gatorland's perimeter as the train conductor relates the history of the 110-acre wildlife preserve. Back on the ground, visitors find plenty of opportunities to break for eating (gator is even on the menu), drinking (the coffee stand serves a surprisingly great latte) or letting the kids romp around the playground/splash park while you kick back and take a breather. Along the way, I see daring guests ride on the Screamin' Gator Zip Line-its launch towers reaching more than seven stories high and soaring over 1,200 feet of park-and even braver souls get behind the fence and into the swamp to hand-feed some gators in Adventure Hour.

By and large, Gatorland manages to deliver information and education dosed with plenty of humor to keep things light while never letting visitors lose sight of the fact that its main attractions are also Florida's most profuse natural predators. One thing I knew for certain as I left Gatorland: you can feed a gator lunch but you should never get close enough to become that lunch...unless you're in a controlled environment accompanied by a trained professional with a big stick.

Get more details on visiting Gatorland and booking the perfect accommodations for your vacation to Kissimmee, Florida, located in the heart of world-famous theme parks and other adrenaline-pumping adventures.

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