Getting To Grips With Gatorland!

Getting To Grips With Gatorland!
By ATD’s Florida experts, Susan & Simon Veness
Think of Florida wildlife and you usually think of one thing – alligators! Think of an alligator attraction, and there is also only one place to go – Gatorland. And, if you are a REAL gator fan, there is one outstanding programme you absolutely have to try at this wonderful park – Trainer For A Day.

Simon’s youngest son Mark is definitely that much of a fan, hence the two of them recently set off to give this a try, and the end result was a big hit with both of them, albeit Simon was only taking the photos!



Trainer For A Day is a unique opportunity at this family-owned Orlando institution (which actually dates back to 1949) as it goes fully backstage into the animal care areas of this totally naturalistic park and affords some amazing first-hand opportunities to ‘meet’ the residents.



It runs for a full two hours prior to main park opening, hence it is a quiet and idyllic time to be going around with one of the trainers and learning their secrets and essential animal care tips. Here’s what Simon had to say…

We arrived right on the dot of 8am to be met at the main office entrance by trainer Michael, one of the senior trainers and Adventure Tour guide. He introduced us straight away to two of the park’s smallest inhabitants and told us the proper way to handle baby gators, which are cute and squiggly – and will definitely bite you if they get the chance! Even at less than a year old, they still have well developed teeth, so it’s important to pay attention to the handling instructions.



Mark is in his element with gators, and would happily have carried these two ‘nippers’ around all day if he could, but....they had to be put back in their tank as Michael led us out of the back door into the park itself.

It was beautifully peaceful and we had the whole place to ourselves as our expert guide pointed out some of the animal exhibits, including the two Florida panthers that had to be re-housed when their owner could no longer look after them properly. Gatorland stepped up with an offer to look after them and now the brother-and-sister duo have smart new digs here.

For Mark, his first full duty was in checking up on the park’s tortoises, including a giant 100-year-old Aldabran tortoise on loan from Busch Gardens. “One of those would cost about $80,000 to buy today,” Michael told us. “But you could get one of the larger African tortoises for only $5,000!”

After feeding him some tasty leafy morsels, Mark was encouraged to give the tortoise a good neck scratch, which definitely seemed to go down well, and then we were off to the alligator breeding marsh.

Here, Michael took us through the gate marked ‘Hungry Gators – Do Not Enter’ and provided some ‘gator chow,’ great hunks of meat to feed to the hungry denizens. In a real ‘Don’t try this at home’ moment, Mark was invited to get within a few yards of several dozen hungry, tooth-filled mouths to feed them. And then Michael told him to turn round for a picture. It definitely takes some nerve, knowing you have all those huge animals just behind you!

Our trainer let us in on the secret, though, that the gators are conditioned to be fed only if they come up to a certain distance out of the water. If they come too far – no food. Hence it is actually safer than it seems, and carefully overseen by the expert-on-hand.



From there, it was more alligator check-ups as we visited the white gators – “Specimens like this can be worth more than $1million because they are so rare,” Michael explained – which have to hand-cleaned when they pick up bits of dirt and mould on their otherwise pigment-less skin. Happily, we didn’t have to do that today, but Mark did feed several of them.

Next door to the white gators is 1,000lb Chester (‘the Dog Eater’) who had to be taken out of a local lake some years ago when he started to develop a taste for neighbourhood dogs in Tampa. When a wild gator starts to home in on things like that, it has to be removed before it becomes a major nuisance, hence Chester is now a Gatorland resident for the rest of his life. As he can also be dangerous to other gators, he also has his own separate pen.

 After checking on Chester, the next item on the agenda was to go back-stage to some of the animal pens behind the scenes, home to many of the park’s smaller – but still formidable – inhabitants.

These include lizards, snakes, scorpions and spiders, all of which have to be treated with care but also inspected regularly for their general health and well-being.

Here we learned about rattlesnakes and other venomous species native to Florida, as well as some of the non-native constrictor family, notably Burmese pythons. Mark was invited to hold some of them, and the highlight was having a python round his neck AND another to hold at the same time. Nerve-racking? You bet, especially when Michael then produced some lizards and a Chilean tarantula for Mark to hold. Now that’s some serious bragging rights for his friends back home!

Finally, it was time to learn some real Florida-style wrangling over at the Gator Wrestling stadium. Here, Michael and an assistant managed to pull one of the six-foot gators from their watery home and teach Mark some of the basics of their show-style job.

Seeing as Mark was still under 18, his gator had to have his mouth taped shut for his private demonstration, but he still got to feel the full force of one of these armoured reptiles and try his hand at some of the tricks of the wrestling show. It makes for a great photo opportunity, but you definitely need to wear some old clothes as you WILL get dirty.

It concluded a truly memorable few hours, with memories to last a lifetime, and the photos to prove it. But I will let Mark have the finally say: 

“If you go to Gatorland you have to do Trainer For A Day, because it is simply unbeatable. I was definitely scared of the spider but I felt it was something I had to do. I loved scratching the tortoise’s beck, he was really funny. The bearded lizard was also a big hit for me and while I’m not a big fan of snakes, it was a great chance to learn more about them.



“The gator wrestling was the coolest thing, though. It takes so much sheer strength to pull them around. The guys that do it full-time must be so fit to be able to do that all day! The instructor definitely scared me at one point in pretending to be an alligator, but I forgive him!”



Got questions on this story or anything to do with Orlando or Florida? Be sure to join Susan and Simon on the fabulous ATD discussion forum here:

Tickets you may be interested in...