Gatorland - Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry (2016)


Today I’m visiting Gatorland, which proudly bills itself as “The Alligator Capital of the World,” as well as, more modestly, “Orlando’s Best Half Day Attraction.” This is the place to go if you want to observe alligators going about their normal daily alligator routine of not moving for hours on end. Also, if you have a problem alligator that has been a nuisance in your neighborhood, on your golf course, in your Jacuzzi, etc., Gatorland will take it off your hands. It is a haven for troubled alligators. It also has crocodiles, which are also motionless but can be distinguished from alligators by the biological fact that the sign on their pen says CROCODILES.

Gatorland is located on the Orange Blossom Trail, just up the road a piece30 from Tupperware world headquarters.31 It’s a family-owned business that has been around since 1949, way before Disney. It’s proud of its Old Florida heritage, and it has a laid-back, non-slick, this-ain’t-the-Magic-Kingdom, redneck-y vibe. For example, the gift shop sells flasks. Also, there are a lot of jokey signs like this:

When you enter Gatorland, the first wildlife you see is—Spoiler Alert—alligators. A buttload of alligators, dozens and dozens of them on wooden platforms surrounded by water. They are sprawled haphazardly, often on top of each other, as if they’re having a wild reptile orgy, except that they are not moving. Some of them look like they have not moved since the Reagan administration. It’s like the Department of Motor Vehicles, but with alligators.

Every once in a while, an alligator gets a bee in its bonnet and verrrry slowly moves forward maybe three inches. Then, not wanting to be branded as too much of a go-getter by the others, it resumes being motionless.

While strolling on the boardwalk over the alligator ponds, I come across a Mold-A-Matic machine that will make you a souvenir alligator toy right on the spot in just thirty seconds, except that the machine, in keeping with long-standing Mold-A-Matic tradition, is out of order.

Seeking action, or at least movement, I head over to Panther Springs, which features two endangered Florida panthers, Neiko and Lucy, brother and sister, who were born in a rescue center and, according to a sign, “brought to their gorgeous new home at Gatorland to help educate our visitors on the peril of the Florida panther.” They’re in a large landscaped enclosure with a glass wall on one side. One of them—Lucy, I believe—is sleeping under a bench, but Neiko is doing slow circuits of the perimeter, prowling around and around and around and around and around and around and around, looking for a way out that is never there no matter how many times he goes around and around and around. Each time he passes the glass wall, his powerful body just inches from tourists taking pictures of him, I get the feeling that he’s thinking some panther version of If I could just get through this invisible thing, I would definitely educate these visitors.

Neiko looking through the glass.

Leaving Panther Springs, I check out the pythons, who are motionless, as are the giant tortoises, and The Snakes of Florida, and the rare white alligators, and the various other specialty and/or celebrity alligators, all of them exhibiting the same level of activity as a fire hydrant.

One of the celebrity gators is named Chester. The sign on his pen says:

“CHESTER” The Big Dog Eater!

This big fellar’s name is Chester and he loved eating dogs in Tampa, FL. At 13½ feet long and 1,000 pounds, he could put away some “hounds.” We saved him from trappers who wanted to make a suitcase out of him. He don’t get along real well with other gators so he gets this cool bachelor pad with private pool.

Chester is lying motionless in his pool, staring ahead with a stoic expression, perhaps dreaming of the days when he roamed free in Tampa, chowing down on Labradoodles.

Near Chester is an exhibit of parrots, who, to their credit, sometimes turn their heads. Also there’s a petting zoo—excuse me, pettin’ zoo—where one of the posted rules is NO EATING THE ANIMAL FOOD.

A little past that is the Upclose Encounters outdoor theater, where several times a day wisecracking Gatorland guys put on a comical show in which they display venomous snakes and freak people out by such antics as putting tarantulas on their heads. For the grand finale they have some tourists stand in a line, facing the audience and holding out their arms, with orders not to turn around. Then from backstage the Gatorland guys bring out, and swiftly drape across the victims’ outstretched arms, a ten-foot tapeworm.

Not really, although that would make for a truly entertaining Upclose Encounter. What the guys place on the tourists’ arms is an albino Burmese python, which the tourists hold nervously while the Gatorland guys make wisecracks about being swallowed.

The Burmese python is the brand of snake that is taking over the Everglades by eating all the other animals. This has led to the creation of one of my favorite Florida government programs: The Python Challenge. This is a contest run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which invites the public to hunt pythons and offers cash prizes to whoever brings in the most pythons, or the longest python, dead or alive. Basically, the theme is: Florida—Come kill our snakes!

I think this is a great way to remove pests, and would like to see Florida adapt the concept to other invasive species, such as New York Jets fans. I’m not suggesting that we kill them, of course. I’m suggesting that we trap them humanely, put them in trucks and release them back in New York. If they come back, then we should kill them.32

As I leave the Upclose Encounters show, I have an exciting upclose encounter of my own when I behold a sight I never expected to see in my lifetime—a sight so unlikely, so implausible, so impossible, that I almost question my own senses. I blink several times, but it’s still there, incredible as it seems, right in front of my eyes: a Mold-A-Matic machine without an out-of-order sign apologizing for the inconvenience. MAKE YOUR OWN GATORLAND WRESTLER, it says.

I approach the Mold-A-Matic cautiously, fearful that I will spook it into suddenly being out of order. Carefully I insert two dollar bills. I watch in amazement as the Mold-A-Matic wheezes and whirs, then produces the toy, which is a replica, made of what appears to be radioactive mucus, of a hat-wearing man who appears to be having sex with an alligator.

As I am photographing the toy, a father and his young daughter stop to look at the Mold-A-Matic. I hand the girl the toy, which is still warm, and tell her she can have it. She is delighted. The father thanks me, though he seems less enthusiastic.

My next stop is the Gator Wrestlin’ Show. A big crowd has gathered, sitting on bleachers around a sandpit surrounded by water containing several dozen motionless alligators, every single one of which is thinking: Please, please, PLEASE don’t pick me.

The show, like Upclose Encounters, features two wisecracking Gatorland guys. After some introductory wisecracks, they have a member of the audience select an alligator. One of the guys grabs this gator—which is thinking: NOOOOOO—by the tail and drags it onto the sand, where he commences wrestlin’ it, by which I mean sitting on it. I have seen alligator “wrestling” many times, and I have never seen an alligator make even the slightest effort to resist. The gators display the same fighting spirit as a Barcalounger.

The Gatorland guy keeps up a stream of comical patter while performing the standard gator-wrestling maneuvers, including prying the gator’s mouth open. For his grand finale, he holds the gator’s mouth open with his chin while everybody takes pictures. The gator submits to all of this stoically, although it is clearly thinking: Why? In the name of God, WHY?

From the Gator Wrestlin’ venue, I head over to Pearl’s Smokehouse for lunch. While waiting in line, I study the menu; the most expensive item, at $10.49, is the Gator Nuggets. That’s right: In addition to rescuing alligators, Gatorland serves them deep-fried. It is a full-service gator facility.

I decide to try the nuggets. Apparently, I’m the only one ordering them; the cashier says they’ll take a few minutes. But it’s worth the wait when the nuggets arrive piping hot from the fryer with a festive presentation featuring toothpicks.

I select a nugget and take a small bite, which I am able to successfully swallow after approximately forty-five minutes of chewing. I honestly think it would be easier to eat the Mold-A-Matic toy. I decide to pass on the remainder of the nuggets. My hat is off to whatever kind of animal is able to eat alligators in the wild, uncooked.

I head back toward the entrance of the park, because it’s almost time for the signature event at Gatorland, a show that, in my opinion, is one of the best things33 you will find at any attraction in Florida or the world in general: the legendary Gator Jumparoo.

A big crowd has gathered around the Jumparoo pond for the show, which stars two Gatorland guys pretending to be subliterate overalls-wearing hillbillies named Bubba and Cooter. After some comical preliminary hijinks establishing that they have the IQs of yogurt, Bubba and Cooter get down to the heart of the Jumparoo, which is going out on a platform and dangling chicken carcasses over the water. This, at last, is something that the alligators consider worth moving for. They swarm toward the platform and lunge out of the water, snapping their jaws.

The tourists, who have been divided into Team Bubba and Team Cooter, cheer when one of the gators on their side snags a chicken carcass and gulps it down. I’m on Team Bubba and I am definitely cheering. I find the Gator Jumparoo to be a lot more exciting than, for example, professional baseball.

The show ends and I head for the exit, because I know nothing will surpass the Jumparoo. It has been an enjoyable half day for me, except for the Nugget Encounter. Gatorland has a lot to see, even if most of it doesn’t move, and I like the fact they don’t take themselves too seriously. Also they get major bonus points for having a working Mold-A-Matic, which is ironic because it results in my decision to award Gatorland, using the Florida Tourist Attraction Rating System, 4 out of a possible 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics.

I get into my car and exit the parking lot, looking for a place to eat. I’m starving and I know exactly what I want to have for lunch.