By Vanessa Caceres
Florida has plenty of alligators. At Gatorama, you can get up close and personal -- just not too up close and personal -- with hundreds of these prehistoric animals.
Located in South Florida’s Palmdale -- just about two hours from Miami or Orlando -- Gatorama has been around since 1957. In fact, it’s one of about a dozen remaining roadside attractions from before the time Disney came to Florida in the early 1970s.
The park was started by Cecil Clemons, a swamp dweller and chain-smoker who was reported to have 14 wives, according to Gatorama’s history. “Two out of the three might be true and we’ll let you decide which ones,” Gatorama states on its website.
The park opened during a time when people came to Florida to see the beach, an orange grove, and alligators. Clemons was able to help out with the last one as tourists drove along U.S. 27, a road that stretches from Miami up to Indiana.
Allen and Patty Register took over Gatorama in 2006; the couple got involved earlier helping to manage Gatorama for Patty’s father, who took over the park after Clemons. Fast forward to today, and Gatorama maintains its old-fashioned, roadside charm.
“My son and I travel every weekend to different wildlife parks and Gatorama far exceeded our expectations,” said Roxanne Benitez of Naples.
So what’s it like to visit Gatorama?
After you pay admission, you’ll make your way onto Gatorama’s long boardwalk, which crosses over a large pond, home for many gators and crocodiles.
“They’re right under me. I’m not sure I like that!” said one visitor as she looked down and heard signs of a gator in the water under the boardwalk slats. The boardwalk is completely enclosed from the waist down and covered on the top. It’s open on each side so you can get pictures, but Gatorama also has a sign to let you know it can’t retrieve items that are dropped in the water -- this includes your new smartphone.
Before you take your boardwalk stroll, buy some alligator food from Gatorama’s friendly staff. “The gators and crocs are guaranteed to please so long as you grab a bag of crunchy treats at the entrance to toss to them,” Benitez said. You’ll see the gators get excited about the oversized pellets as they fight -- fast and competitive but a little uncoordinated.
You’ll also hear the gators and crocs hiss and grunt -- those are sounds you probably don’t want to hear when you’re walking alone at night.
After the boardwalk, you’ll see smaller-sized gators grouped together in enclosed areas and lying on top of each other. They sun themselves and sometimes aggressively thwack at each other to move. You’ll see Gatorama legends like Salty, the saltwater croc, and Goliath, who has called Gatorama home since 1968. He’s the park’s oldest resident, and was moved from the main pond because he killed too many other crocs. As you may guess by his name, he is indeed massive.
But gators and crocs aren’t all to see during a visit to Gatorama. The park now has a petting zoo with goats, ponies, a donkey, and pigs. Organize the kids to see if they can run as fast as a gator. Don’t worry, there’s no gator participating in the race!
Gatorama is also home to several animals common in Florida, such as the regal Florida panther (only about 200 are said to be left in the wild), bobcats, racoons, birds, and snakes. The park’s staff helps to raise awareness of conservation efforts for Florida’s unique wildlife.
Gatorama has daily shows, including the Big Gator Feed Show and Goliath! Go Big or Go Home. That’s when you’ll see Goliath in action with one of the two trainers in the park who have special skills to handle this giant.
If you can’t get enough gator action just by watching, there are experiences to catch a juvenile gator, sit on the back of a gator (with its mouth taped shut, but still, watch your hands), and “Fast Hands or No Hands” Gator Feeding. With “Fast Hands,” participants age 18 and older can learn proper gator feeding techniques. Yikes!
Once a year, Gatorama hosts its Gator Hatchling Festival to give participants the chance to watch and hold a tiny gator soon after its birth. The festival draws a large crowd of participants eager to watch a gator break out of its egg. Volunteers and staff are on site to help, and they let visitors know that the baby’s teeth aren’t yet developed, so there are no worries about gator bites.
Liz Epps of Sebring, Fla., traveled to Gatorama for the Hatchling Festival with her sons -- they loved it but also had fun with other animal encounters. “My youngest loved being able to see and interact with the donkey, do the alligator feeding, and do the ninja line they have,” she said. The family is already planning a return visit for more adventures.
Gatorama’s income also comes from alligator farming, which means it breeds and raises alligators for meat, leather, and other products. Essentially, that makes Gatorama like any other domestic animal farm, except their animals don’t herd well, as Gatorama notes on its website.
In the gift shop, you’ll find gator T-shirts, mugs, and tchotchkes of all sorts. (For the person who has everything, there’s a sample of alligator poop). You’ll also spot some classier gift ideas, such as sweet-smelling salt scrubs and soaps from the Sunshine State.
If you get hungry, Gatorama has a food truck inside the park and sells drinks and small snacks in the gift shop. There’s also gator meat for sale that you can prep at home (gator tail, anyone?) If gator spotting has made you hungry enough to eat a whole swamp, you’ll find some good restaurants in nearby Lake Placid or Clewiston.
When you go…
10665 N US Hwy 27
Palmdale, FL 33944
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