Thursday, January 21, 2010

Gatorland!

In 1999, while visiting my sister and family then living in Orlando, I walked* through the iconic alligator jaws (2nd photo) to enjoy the many sights and sounds of Gatorland. The evidence is in the staged tourist shot I posed for (3rd photo) - my sister posed for one with a live snake around her neck and a lizard in her lap! The 100-acre park was established in 1949 and houses thousands of alligators and crocodiles, including some albinos. The animals can be seen from boardwalks and an observation tower, and high-jumping for chickens and being wrestled in live shows. The preserve also offers a petting zoo (not for the gators!) and an aviary.

Imagine my dismay on November 6, 2006, when I saw in the weird news - from my desk at Georgetown University - that Gatorland had gone up in flames! The newspapers reported that there was massive fire damage, but no one had been injured and only 3 animals were killed: 2 pythons and an alligator. "A fire of this magnitude would be dangerous to fight in any situation but now you have to throw in the fact that there are dangerous animals inside - alligators that are more than likely spooked by the commotion," said a local reporter. Many animal rescue crews responded to offer their help. It took 2 hours for firefighters to bring the blaze - electrical in origin - under control. After the road reopened, employees showed up wanting to help with the clean-up, and "people drove by to snap pictures of the place that has meant so much to generations of Central Floridians."

The fire (1st photo) destroyed the front entrance, the gift shop, and some administrative offices, but the owners vowed to rebuild. "This park is like an old alligator. Gators fight, they get scarred up, they get beat up, they tear each other up, but they're resilient," Gatorland official Tim Williams said. By the end of the month, the park had reopened. Since then, they have made even more improvements to the 12th most popular attraction in the Orlando area, which draws 400,000 visitors each year. I'm glad to have been one of them!

*I was walking with a cane at that point, and remember having to sit down for a rest more than once because it was very hot.

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