Orlando, Florida is the theme park capital of the world and it is easy to see why. There is so much to do here that it almost seems impossible to do it all. With Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and so much more, this city is jam packed with fun around every corner. It is hard to think of a time before theme parks came to Orlando. Many people don’t know that there were theme parks here before Walt Disney World and Universal and one of them still exists today!
Orlando’s First Theme Park
Way before Disney and Universal came to Orlando and started the dawn of the big theme park era, there was Gatorland. In 1949, Owen Godwin founded this 110 acre theme park/wildlife reserve. Gatorland is aptly dubbed the “alligator capital of the world” and it’s easy to see why. With thousands of alligators, crocodiles and many more animals, there is plenty to see and do there.
Where it all began…
It all started in 1930 when Owen Godwin built an alligator pit in the backyard of his home. His wife, Pearl, sold lots of alligator products, such as belts, keychains, meat, etc. Customers would come to their house to buy their products and upon leaving, they would visit the alligator pit and look at all of the alligators. After realizing that the alligator pit was drawing quite the crowd, Owen Godwin started dreaming up an attraction that would feature the wildlife of Florida.
A highway pit?
In 1947, Godwin purchased a piece of land off of Highway 17/92 and 441 in Kissimmee. It was a great location to buy land because, at the time, that was Florida’s second most traveled highway and would therefore bring in a lot of visitors. The new park’s home would be in a “borrow pit” which was the pit that was dug to supply dirt for the new highway. Three people invested $100 each into the attraction. Many people did not want to invest because they didn’t think that anyone would actually pay money to view the wildlife of Florida.
Florida Wildlife Institute
In 1949, the attraction opened with the name Florida Wildlife Institute. It featured just alligators and snakes at the time. The gift shop at the Florida Wildlife Institute featured a thatched roof made by the Seminole Tribe. The Seminole tribe lived on property and often wrestled alligators as part of the entertainment lineup. In 1950, Godwin changed the name of the park to Snake Village and Alligator Farm. He thought that the old name sounded too much like a government organization rather than a fun attraction. At this time, the park now featured a snake pit, an alligator pool and a Native American village.
Snake Village and Alligator Farm
Snake Village and Alligator Farm had a huge bout of success when Godwin purchased an enormous crocodile named Bone Crusher. He was 15 feet long and weighed 1,080 pounds! The huge croc was advertised as “the world’s largest captive crocodile” and Godwin offered anyone $1000 if they could prove him wrong-no one did. Bone Crusher became the leading attraction at the park for many years. Because Bone Crusher was so successful, Godwin bought a 12 foot alligator named Cannibal Jake and took him on the road up the East Coast. People would pay a dime each to view Cannibal Jake. The money collected from the tour helped Snake Village and Alligator Farm stay in business.
Finally, in 1954, Snake Village and Alligator Farm changed its name to the name we all know today, Gatorland. In the 1960’s, the tourism industry was rapidly growing, which led to larger crowds at Gatorland. More attractions were added to the park, including the ‘Coon House. Godwin’s children found a large 25 foot long log on their property and build a house on the top of it for a little raccoon. Godwin looked at it as an opportunity to bring a new animal to the parks. Unfortunately, he didn’t account for the fact that raccoons are nocturnal animals- meaning they sleep all day and are up all night.
Gators and Raccoons and Zebras- oh my!
Godwin went on many safaris all around the world searching for new animals for the Gatorland Zoo. In 1962, he acquired a zebra from Africa and it became the first and only zebras in Central Florida at the time. It was also around this time that Godwin’s son, Frank, designed the parks unique entrance, the large open mouth of an alligator that guests would walk through. The new entrance would be used in movies, newspapers, and more to draw tourists to Gatorland.
Walt Disney World opens
In 1971, Walt Disney World opened its doors to an overwhelming number of people. The popularity of Walt Disney World forced other smaller theme parks to close due to lack of business. They were not able to keep up with enormous success of Walt Disney World. However, Gatorland did not suffer at all. In fact, they continued to still bring in a lot of business.
Working with the University of Florida
In 1979, Gatorland started working with the University of Florida and the Florida Wildlife Commission to research alligator farming. Alligators were on the endangered species list but there was still a very high demand for alligator products. Gatorland gave the University of Florida a $20,000 grant to study alligator reproduction. The result was a huge success and helped protect and preserve the alligator population. By the 1980’s Gatorland had become the only place in the entire world to successfully artificially inseminate alligators. Because of all of their work with the University of Florida, state of the art techniques were developed to breed alligators, incubate eggs and provide a safe environment for baby alligators to survive.
In 1988, more land was purchased and added to Gatorland making it a 37 acre tourist attraction. In 1989, the Florida Game Commission gifted Gatorland a black bear named Judy. And in 1991, Gatorland broke ground on another major expansion. This expansion added the Gator Stadium, Alligator Breeding Marsh, larger train tour, and Pearl’s Smokehouse. Pearl’s Smokehouse was an on property restaurant that served smoked gator nuggets, gator ribs, burgers, hot dogs and much more. Gator Stadium had 800 seats and a stage that was surrounded by a moat. There were 20 minute alligator wrangling shows that took place here. The Breeding Marsh spanned more than 10 acres and provided a safe and stress free environment for alligators to breed. Visitors are able to watch from above in an observation tower. There is also a large rookery there that allows the alligators to protect aquatic birds from natural predators.
Snakes of Florida
In 1992, Snakes of Florida made its debut. Snakes of Florida was a snakes awareness program for children and adults. This was a new expansion for Gatorland’s education program. The Snakes of Florida exhibit also opened around this time and brought in many species of snakes including Rattlesnakes, Rat Snakes, Cottonmouth Moccasin Snakes and many more.
In 1997, Alligator Alley, a quarter mile of fun for children, was added to Gatorland. Alligator Alley was broken up into a few different areas. Lily’s Pad was a fun play area for kids that included a huge jungle gym. Allie’s Barnyard was a baby animal petting zoo that included goats, lambs, llamas, ducks and turkeys. The Very Merry Aviary was home to free-flying rainbow lorikeets. The birds were so friendly that they land on the hands and shoulders of guests who feed them. Gadzilla was a fun and rare photo op spot in Alligator Alley. This allowed guests to step inside of a giant (plastic) alligator jaw.
Sadly on November 6, 2006, a large fire broke out at Gatorland and destroyed the 7,000 square foot, award-winning gift shop and the executive offices. After a multi-week closure, Gatorland reopened to the public and the park saw a new record in attendance. In 2007, a groundbreaking ceremony took place to celebrate the new construction of the Gift Shop and Admission Complex. The $4 million Complex was to replace the original gift shop that was lost in the fire. In 2008, the Gift Shop and Admission Complex was completed. The 19,000 square foot complex included retail, meeting and office space.
2010 and beyond…
In 2010, The Mile of Monsters opened. The one mile long, self-guided tour took guests through the homes of some of the parks most famous reptiles. In 2011, Gatorland opened the world’s first zipline that raced above alligators and crocodiles. The award-winning zipline takes guests up to 56 feet in the air and goes at speeds of about 30 mph through the park. In 2016, Gator Gauntlet opened and changed the history of the parks in such an amazing way. Gator Gauntlet is a single zip line that allows guests with mobility challenges to be able to enjoy the zipline. The wheelchair accessible ramp allows guests to travel 350 feet down a zip line through the park and over alligators.
Largest Expansion Ever for Gatorland
In December of 2017, Gator Joe’s Adventure Outpost and Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure opened. It was the parks largest expansion since opening its doors in 1949. The Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure takes guests right alongside of the swamps. Guests may choose from three monster-style off-road vehicles. Each vehicle seats 12 riders and is designed to represent alligators. Gator Joe’s Adventure Outpost is the parks new home base and allows guests to reserve and purchase tickets for all of the parks fun adventures.
Gatorland’s 70th Anniversary
In 2019, Gatorland celebrated their 70th Anniversary with two new annual events: Gatorpalooza in May and Gatorland’s Gators, Ghosts and Goblins in October. Gatorpalooza features live music, vendors, games and giveaways. Gatorland’s Gators, Ghosts and Goblins takes place for five days during October and features lots of spooky Halloween-time fun. Gatorland also opened the all-new White Gator Swamp. It is home to the largest community of white alligators in the entire United States. In 2020, Gatorland expanded and renovated the famous Pearl’s Restaurant. It now features outdoor seating and an expanded menu.
Paving the Way…
Orlando’s first theme park paved the way for Disney World and Universal in many ways. Much like Walt Disney, Owen Godwin had a dream to build a theme park that would entertain people and make them happy. While Disney World and Universal are much bigger and more thrilling, Gatorland is fun in its own unique way. Gatorland has never tried to compete with Disney or Universal, instead, it made its own way in the theme park world. It has consistently bringing in guests since 1949 and it is still growing. It is interesting to me that Walt Disney’s dream all started with a mouse…and now we know that Owen Godwin’s dream all started with an alligator.The Orlando Real on