By Susan and Simon Veness
What began as a roadside attraction in 1949 has become an icon of Orlando and an essential window into the lives of some of the State’s oldest residents. No, not the employees who work there…we’re talking about the reptilian residents whose eyes peer at you from water level and glow red in the dark.
With three informative shows, lots of exhibits, and a fun Gator Gully splash park for youngsters, Gatorland never fails to provide a memorable family outing, away from the hectic pace of the theme parks. Combined with an airboat ride, it’s a genuine look at the ‘real Florida’, and one we enjoy again and again.
To begin with, you can’t miss the gators, starting with the giant gator mouth that serves as the park’s entrance. Just beyond, pools filled with alligators and crocodiles of every size allow guests to see how indolent these powerful creatures can be—and how quickly they can move when food is in the offing!
But the human residents are pretty interesting too, starting with President and CEO of Gatorland, Mark McHugh, whose high-energy Southern accent greets you when you phone the park for information (it’s worth calling just to hear his comments!). He’s the driving force behind this family-owned attraction, and the inspiration for the humorous touches you’ll find throughout the park. He also knows how to choose his co-workers wisely, and that’s part of the charm here; it’s more like being in a family than being in a workplace.
We recently had a quick chat with Danielle Lucas, Animal Care Lead at Gatorland, and asked her about being part of the park’s family. Here’s what she had to say:
When did your interest in animal care begin?
Danielle: My interest in animals began when I was 3 years old and I caught my first snake. However, I started volunteering at wildlife refuges at age 16.
What is it about Gatorland that appealed you? What made you want to work at this great place?
Danielle: I was attracted to the fact that is family owned and has a lot of historical charm.
Which animals and reptiles do you work with at Gatorland?
Danielle: I work with small alligators and crocodiles, as well as raccoons, Florida panthers, bobcats, goats, fallow and white-tail deer. I also work with venomous and non-venomous reptiles, large pythons, parrots, Cracker cattle, and tortoises, plus several more animals.
Is there an animal or reptile you most enjoy working with?
Danielle: I like working with the Florida Panthers and the bobcats.
Did you have to overcome any fears when you started working at Gatorland?
Danielle: I had to overcome the fear of public speaking. It is not my strong point, but I pushed through and have now performed off-property shows for a year and a half.
Are there any habits or techniques you have developed that make working with the animals or gators safer and easier?
Danielle: It is important to continue to have clear communication among co-workers, to be alert, and to always follow safety protocols.
Is there any particular season you most look forward to (breeding season/cooler weather/summer crowds)?
Danielle: I like working in the cooler weather, because most mammals tend to get frisky and have spunkier personalities when it’s cooler. I notice this especially in the cats.
Do you have any stories about interacting with the animals?
Danielle: Every day is something new and interesting! It touches my heart every time I am greeted by the bobcats with excitement, purrs, chirps and friendly head-butts of affection.
What do you enjoy most about interacting with guests?
Danielle: It’s always gratifying to help the public/guests overcome their fear of a particular animal or just to educate them on certain species in general.
What is the most challenging part of your day?
Danielle: The most challenging part of my day is when I receive a negative comment from a guest concerning their opinions on the animals. Like whether they complain about the enclosure being "too small" or they feel that it's "cruel to have captive animals". But at the same time I enjoy those confrontations because nine times out of ten they will walk away with a different mindset and an understanding of why these animals are here. They don't always know the history of that particular animal or its conditions.
What’s the most exciting part of your job?
Danielle: The most exciting part of my job is the husbandry and the training sessions with the Florida panthers and the bobcats.
Duty then called Danielle away, as the residents she provides care for couldn’t be kept waiting, so we continued our casual wander. In 2013, Gatorland added the environment of Panther Springs, taking in brother and sister Lucy and Neiko, endangered panther-cougar mix cubs who became instant celebrities. This year, the park welcomed two bobcats, Bloo and Osceola, who now roam the elaborate and engaging Bobcat Bayou exhibit.
While the park’s main focus is on the care and conservation of animals, the happiness and comfort of their human visitors is foremost as well. Gatorland recently added to its popular Screamin’ Gator Zipline attraction by constructing a tower from which guests with lower body impairments can experience the thrill of ziplining, a feat not previously available anywhere in the eastern United States.
Participants in wheelchairs or with the inability to climb stairs will access the tower via an elevator, then use a specially designed harness which enables them to be lifted from their wheelchair and take the hair-raising 365 foot flight from the top of the seven-story tower, flying right over the gator swamp with its fantastic view of the gators and crocs below. The zipline ends at ground level, where the guest’s wheelchair is waiting.
We think that says it all when it comes to Gatorland’s dedication to their guests’ enjoyment of the park. Everyone should have the opportunity to immerse fully in a day at the park, and, as of this coming autumn and the opening of the new tower to visitors, that wish will become a reality.