Those born during World
War II or earlier, may remember the roadside attractions attractions that dotted the tourist landscape. Half carnival side-show, half shanty town, these entrepreneurial “attractions” served as living proof of Mencken’s maxim that “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Trading on actual freaks of nature (“See the two-headed calf!”) or objects of less certain provenance (“Mummified Indian chief!”), the typical roadside attraction tended to spread incrementally along the highway as the owner figured out new ways to lure the passing parade of cars with stranger wonders or larger souvenir shops featuring the latest in joy buzzers and whoopee cushions. Each year, it seemed, the advertising budget would finance a few more garish billboards, a few more miles away, until tourists knew hundreds of miles in advance that something extraordinary lay ahead. The old roadside attractions were a blight on the landscape. They were tacky, lowbrow, often smelly, and altogether marvelous. They represent one of the most cherished memories of my youth and I wish they were still around.
At Gatorland, they still are—in a way. Gatorland is a modern and evolving nature-themed attraction. It is well-run, clean, and in spite of the 5,000 alligators crammed into its 110 acres, remarkably smell free. But its roots are firmly in the roadside attraction tradition. In fact, that’s how it started out back in 1949.
Owen Godwin was a local cattle rancher—Florida was once America’s second-biggest cattle producer, after Texas—who decided to turn a liability into an asset. Alligators were the Florida cattleman’s nemesis. They would hunker down in water holes and kill unsuspecting calves. This intolerable loss of income prompted a vendetta against the gator, and cattlemen became adept at capturing and killing the scaly predators. Godwin realized not only that there was a market for the hides and meat of the gators he killed but that few of the tourists who whizzed past on highway 441 had ever seen an alligator and might pay for the privilege. So Godwin rounded up some gators and a passel of the snakes that thronged his property and the “Snake & Reptile Village” was born, beckoning to the southbound tourist traffic. Even today, in spite of Orlando’s phenomenal post-Mickey growth, Gatorland’s location seems a bit out of the way. In 1949, it really must have seemed in the middle of nowhere.
Gatorland has come a long way since its early days, not so much in its look and feel as in its focus and attitude. For a while Godwin followed the pattern of many roadside attractions. As he prospered, he traveled farther afield, adding “exotic” animals to his collection. Those days are long past and only a few holdovers from that era remain.
For many years, Gatorland was a working alligator “farm,” sending over 1,000 gators to market each year. So successful was the Gatorland model that it sparked a renaissance in alligator farming across the American south. So Gatorland phased out its farming operation to concentrate on the zoological side of the operation and the conservation of Florida species. Gatorland is also a partner with the University of Florida in alligator research and is the only place on earth where alligators are bred through artificial insemination.
Compared to the big attractions in town—Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld—Gatorland is downright modest. Many of the exhibits are made of simple cinder block construction painted white and green, and I'm sure the appearance of much of the park hasn't changed a whole lot since the sixties. Rather than a being a drawback, I find this homey quality to be a large part of Gatorland's charm. If you don't come with exaggerated expectations fueled by Hollywood scenic artists and are willing to accept the park on its own low-key terms, you won't be disappointed.
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