Back in 1949, the reassuringly hokey Gatorland became Orlando’s very first mass attraction, featuring Seminole Indians wrestling the animals for tourists; the house-sized jaw at its entrance was a state landmark. Back then, Florida was crawling with alligators—you would see them basking by the sides of the roads—but these days, the reptiles have been mostly evicted by development, so sanctuaries like these are the best places to see the beasts (such as the resident diva, the 15-ft.-long, 1,400-lb. Bonecrusher II) in their ornery glory. Gatorland is rustic in an Eisenhower-era, family-friendly way, and easy to love. There’s a kids’ splash area (suit them up), and in recent years, stuff such as a wading bird rookery, a petting zoo, a miniature train, and a five-stage zip line over gator ponds ($70; it’s a good time and guests who need accessible accommodations can also do it) were added. It just created and built the (extraordinarily bumpy) Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure (another $10), a tongue-in-cheek narrated ride in custom vehicles that jostles you around the overgrown back acres and crawls through the middle of a roiling gator pond. The core of a visit is the showtimes, when good ol’ boy gator rangers, buzzed on their own testosterone, wrassle, tickle, and otherwise pester seething gators, and for 10 bucks, they’ll bring your children into the fray—safely, with a wad of duct tape around the critters’ snouts—for snapshots. It’s cornpone fun and they know it; signage is full of gags and every show is staged to contain a fake near disaster to titillate and thrill tourists. Most of the fun is trawling the 110-acre plot on walkways and docks as the critters teem ominously in murky waters underfoot. Strategy: It’s easy to get the highlights in 2 or 3 hours, but don’t miss the Jumparoo, when gators leap out of the water for suspended chunks of chicken meat. Bring a fistful of extra cash if you’d like to partake of extras such as feeding gators, that photo, and the train (or add a package to your entry for $7 more). And save a few bills for one of its 1960s-era vending machines which press a toy alligator out of injected hot wax right before your eyes—it’s just one of many unmissable throwbacks here.
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
Our Rating Hours Daily 10am–5pm; summer: Daily 10am–6pm Phone 800/393-5297 , 407/855-5496 Prices $30 adults, $20 kids 3–12. Free parking Web site Gatorland