* * * * *
Type: Outdoor show
Time: 15 minutes
Short Take: Best show at Gatorland
Gatorland’s best show takes place in an open-air arena next to Pearl’s Smokehouse. Covered bleachers face a sunken sandy platform surrounded by a small moat and a raised border that (we hope) keeps the gators from getting out. Twelve gators, about seven or eight feet long, lie on the sand sunning themselves.
This is a two-man show. Ostensibly one is the host and the other the gator wrangler, but I suspect the second man is there in case the wrangler gets in trouble. This show is obviously for real and there's no disguising the fact that it's hard work. ("I never finished school," the wrangler says. "So you kids out there study real hard or you might wind up doin' this.")
Alligator wrestling began, we are told, as a matter of necessity. Alligators would hide in water holes and take the occasional calf. The cattle boss would order the hands to get that gator out. Their courage bolstered by a little moonshine, the ranch hands would oblige. Eventually, the practice became a competitive sport that gave young men a chance to show off their courage and prowess. Which is exactly what happens in this show. The show begins with the wrangler kicking the gators off their sunny perch into the moat. They hiss their annoyance. Then a kid picked from the audience carefully picks out the biggest one for the wrangler to wrestle. Resigned to his fate, the wrangler drags the wriggling, hissing, and none too cooperative beast onto the sandy platform.
Along with an informative patter about alligators, often made breathless by the exertion of keeping a 150-pound gator motionless, the gator wrangler shows off a few of the tricks of the trade—like pulling back the gator's head and placing his chin across its closed jaws. Despite his assurance that it doesn't take much pressure to hold a gator's jaws closed, you respect and admire his gumption. At one point, the wrangler pries the gator's jaws apart to show us his teeth. "If this works, it's gonna make you a pretty nice little snapshot," he says and then adds with perfect backwoods sang froid, "If this don't work, it's gonna make you a pretty nice little snapshot."
Maybe there's less to wrestling gators than meets the eye, but I wouldn't bet on it. The casual machismo and sly good humor with which these fellows put their charges through their paces makes for a thoroughly entertaining 15 minutes. After the show, the stage area is mobbed with audience members eager to ask questions ("Didja ever get bit?") and shake the hand of someone with the guts to wrestle a gator.
Photo Op: For $10, you (or your child) can be a "Rookie Wrestler" and briefly pose sitting on the back of a gator. There is an additional charge for prints of the photo that the park photographer will take of you. The gator's jaws are securely taped shut, and a gator wrangler is close at hand, so there's no real danger. A limited number of opportunities are provided on a first-come-first-served basis before and after selected Gator Wrestlin' performances.
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