Once upon a time, there were no high tech theme parks in Central Florida. Before Walt Disney World moved in and changed the face of the Orlando area forever, Central Florida was a fairly sleepy area. The economy depended much more on citrus than tourism. Nonetheless, Florida’s climate and beaches have always drawn travelers. The central location of Orlando and surrounding towns within the state meant that tourists would pass through on their way to other points of interest.
In the 1940s and 1950s, a new car culture came to life. Particularly following the birth of the interstate highway system, road trips with the family became an important part of the American way of life. So-called Roadside Attractions began to spring up across America, offering amusement and diversion for weary travelers and bringing a new source of revenue for towns. These attractions were by and large family owned and operated, and often linked to a gas station or other family business. The attractions were not huge moneymakers, just a nice side stream of additional cash.
It was in this climate that one of Central Florida’s most unique attractions was born. Gatorland was opened by Owen Godwin in 1949 and the park is still owned by his family today. Godwin’s idea dates back to the 1930s, when he opened an alligator pit behind his home. His wife sold alligator products in the kitchen, then allowed customers to see the gators out back. In 1947, following World War II, Godwin decided to invest in a 16 acre “borrow pit” where dirt had been removed for highway building just off of 17/92 and 441 in Kissimmee. Little did he know that the area would later become the heart of the Orlando tourist district. Godwin’s idea was to find investors to help him turn his new pit into an alligator attraction.
Investors saw Godwin’s idea as laughable. He managed to raise only 0 in investments. Godwin was not deterred, however, and over the next two years the family developed the property themselves. In 1949, the park (then called the Florida Wildlife Institute) debuted, holding a handful of alligators and snakes. A population of Seminole Native Americans lived on the land and performed the park’s first gator wrestling shows. The Seminoles also built the thatched roof of the gift shop.
Throughout the 1950s, Godwin’s enterprise barely sustained itself. Godwin eventually took to the road with his star 13 foot alligator, Cannibal Jake. Appearances throughout the northern states paid off and Godwin was able to support his business. The name was changed early in the 1950s to Snake Village and Alligator Farm, then finally to Gatorland in 1954.
Gradually business began to boom, particularly after the addition of Bonecrusher, a 15 foot, 1080 pound crocodile whom Godwin billed as the world’s largest captive crocodile. During the 1960s, a boom in Florida tourism allowed the dramatic expansion of the park including the addition of many new types of animals and the construction of the now-famous gator mouth entrance.
Despite Owen Godwin’s death in 1975, the family remained committed to the business. The 1970s and 1980s, under the direction of Godwin’s son Frank, saw continued expansion of the park. A new dimension was added at this time via a new partnership with the University of Florida. Rather than simply displaying gators, Gatorland would actively work to preserve them. At the time, alligators were on the endangered species list. The work of Gatorland in tandem with UF, along with the work of experts across the world, paid off. Alligators are no longer endangered.
It is interesting to note that Gatorland never really suffered from the opening of Walt Disney World. Smaller theme parks and attractions across the Central Florida region had trouble competing. Some closed altogether, others were forced to change dramatically. Yet Gatorland’s product was unique enough that business remained steady throughout.
During the 1990s, Gatorland evolved with the changing times. New and exciting shows continued to debut. In 1996, Frank Godwin retired as CEO although he retained a spot on the board of directors. The new CEO was Mark McHugh, a former curator and trainer at SeaWorld. McHugh’s vision helped Gatorland through the transition into a more modern style of theme park. The education department also expanded dramatically during this time, offering classes for both children and adults on a wide variety of wildlife classes.
Today, just after the turn of the millennium, Gatorland remains a popular and very different attractions. Still run as a family business, Gatorland has never become commercial and crass. Small details such as the ample free parking hearken back to a simpler time, when local attractions were designed simply to amuse and not to make a huge fortune. Even the brand new Gator Gully Splash Park is reminiscent of an earlier time, more of an old fashioned swimming hole than a modern water thrill park.
Admission prices are amazingly low for today’s market. Choose from a one day ticket, an after-hours flashlight tour of the Alligator Breeding Marsh, an annual pass or even a trainer for a day experience. The trainer experience includes a regular one day admission for the tour participant and a discount for others in the party. With the trainer for a day experience, you might even get to try your hand at alligator wrestling!
Gatorland is truly unique among Central Florida attractions today. While the excitement is decidedly low tech and the park may seem quaint and dated in many ways, Gatorland consistently wins awards as the top Half-Day Park and top Nonmajor Attraction. Rather than attempting to compete with the big three, Disney, Universal and SeaWorld, Gatorland has instead carved out its own niche in the Orlando market. If you have the time to spare, make your way over to Gatorland and enjoy something completely different. You will not be disappointed.