By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Gatorland’s push toward adventure experiences and entertainment was on display last week at the venerable attraction.
Always owned and operated by the Godwin family, the park broke ground on a new swamp buggy adventure
April 19, it’s largest expansion since opening in 1949.
“Gator Joe’s Adventure Outpost” – named for a longtime employee – is where visitors will soon be able to jump aboard one of three custom-made swamp buggies.
They cut through rough-cut paths in the Florida scrub that surrounds and makes up Gatorland. The open-air vehicles sit high up off the ground. They have a monster-truck feel and offer a purposefully bumpy ride.
Staying true to its name, alligators and Florida crocodiles are part of the new tour. The buggy ride includes splashing down into a gator pond with underwater fencing, letting passengers feed the reptiles and stopping at an actual alligator graveyard.
Gatorland, which opened 20 years before Disney World arrived in 1971, has branched out over the years. It’s transformed from an old-fashioned attraction to a modern-day theme park, with ziplines instead of roller coasters and real animals instead of animatronics.
Gatorland entertainers now include former Orlando radio personality Savannah, a self-professed alligator lover who often updates the park’s Facebook feed with live videos.
Some employees are theme actors while others are more hands-on animal keepers that introduce the park’s smaller reptiles to the public.
Justin White, a 26-year-old UCF graduate, has worked at Gatorland for five years. He climbed his way up from a retail sales position to gator handler, one of the most coveted jobs at the park.
“I love it. I get to teach people about my favorite animal in the world,” White said.
The park’s success, say members of the Godwin family, is that it highlights Florida’s natural wonders and has never expected its gators to compete with Mickey Mouse.
Gatorland has partnerships with other smaller, local Central Florida attractions – from Fun Spot Orlando to Boggy Creek Airboat Rides – which helps the group through shared promotions, said President and CEO Mark McHugh, who married a Godwin daughter.
The attraction also works with Experience Kissimmee and Visit Florida, public-private tourism marketing organizations to expand its brand to national and international markets. Tourism is a difficult business that he wouldn’t trade for the world, said McHugh.
“We’re learning that people want an experience, not just a place to walk around,” he said.
Nancy Godwin remembers coming to Gatorland for the first time in October 1956 to meet her soon-to-be husband’s family.
Nancy and Owen Godwin Jr. were married 59 years and raised two daughters just outside Tampa though Gatorland was always their stomping ground. Now 80, Nancy is a retired executive secretary and Owen Jr., now deceased, was a mechanical engineer.
They lived out of town and didn’t handle day-to-day Gatorland operation. But they always stayed closely connected to the family business, said Godwin, a member of the park’s board of directors who came out for the expansion event Wednesday.
“We’re all so proud of how far it’s come,” she said.