Click here for
night time view
When it opened in 1949, Gatorland was arguably the most popular attraction in the twin cities (Kissimmee-Orlando). And back in Florida’s pre-Disney days, Gatorland’s location on US 441 put it smack dab on the route northern tourists took when heading south for the winter. In other words, all roads led to Gatorland.
For me, they always have. This was the first attraction I ever visited as a kid (somewhere in a photo album are pictures I took here in 1971), and I’ve returned for a variety of reasons—both professional and otherwise—year after year.
There’s a sense of nostalgia here. When you first see the fabled gator mouth near the entrance, a sense of history meets a golden opportunity for a fun Old Florida selfie. And after you’ve entered the park, there are enough shows, displays and exhibits to keep you entertained until closing time.
There are pythons, panthers and parrots. You’ll see snakes, swamps and saltwater crocs. Harkening back to Gatorland’s earliest days are gator wrestlin’ shows as well as the Gator Jumparoo Show. Guests stroll along boardwalks by the alligator-filled lagoon, enter the breeding marsh during “Adventure Hour” or climb up to the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line tower before taking off on a 1,200-foot zip line trip high above the treetops.
I’ve been to Gatorland more times than most, but a recent visit was as exciting as any I can recall because for the first time in my life I saw Gatorland in a new light.
Photo Credit: Ricardo's Photography
To understand what happens at Gator Night Shine, picture yourself at your favorite supermarket. You know every aisle and recognize the people who work there. Now picture yourself wandering through that same store, but at night when it’s closed and the lights are out and the store is empty.
Then add alligators.
Actually, the alligators came later, after a show-and-tell event at the Up-Close Encounters Arena. I’ve been diagnosed as a sissy, so my skin tingles when I see things that crawl or slither or stalk. When a wildlife expert brought out boxes and cages and bags filled with an assortment of insects, arachnids and reptiles, I crept to the last row. But even from this vantage point, I could see the handler’s demonstration was absolutely pitch-perfect in its balance of education and entertainment. Whether he was showing the group a scorpion or a snake or a tarantula, he was like a human encyclopedia capable of answering every question thrown his way. The active ingredient was a healthy dose of humor that kept everyone tuned in.
This presentation alone would have been enough on an average day, but it was only the start of an above-average night. From here, we were handed flashlights and then led single-file on a boardwalk through the breeding marsh.
I’ve lived in Florida my entire life, but I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve walked in the dark past trees sprinkled white with hundreds of roosting egrets. Cautioned to be silent as we passed, even the slightest noise stirred the birds in the branches. Backlit by moonlight peeking through the clouds, the vague outlines of the birds somehow made them even more beautiful than in daylight. I would have been content watching them for hours.
Minutes later we were at a platform, standing just a few feet above the surface of an empty lagoon. But the lagoon wasn’t empty at all. I learned this when the handler asked those of us with flashlights to shine them out over the water as he rapped on the railing. In an instant, dozens—no, hundreds—of glowing eyes reflected in the beam of our flashlights. From a distance, I couldn’t discern any shapes, only glowing, golf ball-sized eyes skimming through the darkness in my direction.
I pushed against the railing and wire to check its strength.
Satisfied I’d be safe, I joined the others in grabbing handfuls of hot dogs from the coolers and, following the handler’s directions, tossed them just to the side of the mouths of the alligators. The placement made a huge difference. Landing beside their mouth, the gator would lift its head and then smash it down atop the water to swallow the meat in one fierce bite. For an alligator, a hot dog was just an hors d’oeuvre.
I’ve never—repeat, never—seen anything like this. Just a few feet below me in the dark waters, a churning mass of power was being switched on by packs of hot dogs. What made this even more thrilling was the surge of adrenaline that comes with getting so close to something so threatening, yet without that nagging feeling that you’re in immediate danger. Eventually, I found I was just as content to look at the alligators lined up before me. Since no one should ever feed wild alligators, this was an experience I could only have at Gatorland, and I wanted to soak it in.
All my experiences at Gatorland couldn’t have prepared me for the heart-pounding action of Gator Night Shine. Look at me now, Gary from 1971. That evening, I felt like a kid again.