Monday, January 10, 2011

Gatorland: See the gators at Orlando's original theme park (and eat them too)

Gatorland, the original Orlando theme park, is still around. After more than 50 years, the park still welcomes visitors to its 110 acres of gators, crocodiles, turtles, snakes and various other reptiles along 441 in Kissimmee/South Orlando. Once surrounded only by Florida swampland, the park now exists in a bayou enclave amidst pawnshops, car dealerships, strip centers and apartment complexes.

Giant concrete jaws greet visitors at the entrance to Gatorland

But don’t let that stop you from visiting. Once past the iconic concrete jaws of the gift shop’s giant alligator head, tourists (and locals too) are immersed in Florida Cracker swamp culture and the droning sound of cars speeding by on the way to Costco soon fades, replaced by the grunt of gators, the squawk of sand hill cranes and the click-clack of the miniature railroad.

I must admit that I hadn’t been to Gatorland in at least 20 years. I hadn’t been since I was a child. That’s a shame, because I have fond memories of the park. I remember the humonggous croc on display in what seemed like a closet-sized concrete enclosure. I remember the glowing eyes of the stuffed tiger displayed in a dark, blacklight-lit room. I remember the zebras. And I especially remember the smelly tapir. But most of all, I remember riding the small train over the gator-filled pools on rickety, precarious, wooden bridges with no doors or safety restraints whatsoever. One wrong move, it seemed, and I was, well, gator bait.

Sun bathing gators lounge in the Florida sun

Well, the small cages are now gone. The stuffed tiger is gone. The zebras are gone. That smelly tapir is gone. And, thankfully, the toy train ride from hell is gone – replaced by a larger train that now runs through swamp and beside gator pens – not over gator pens.

If you are looking for something to do with the family, and don’t want to spend a week’s pay to get into one of the major Orlando theme parks, do yourself a favor and check out Gatorland. The regular $19.99 adult price isn’t bad (if you buy your ticket online), but look for the frequent Florida resident deals that the park regularly runs. I got in for $9.99. If you skip the overpriced addon fees to feed the animals or pose for a picture with a baby gator in your arms, your family of 4 can have a great day of fun for a lot less money.

Pearl's Patio Smokehouse Restaurant at Gatorland

You can’t bring food into the park (for the animal’s sake) but there are two main dining establishments within the park: the snack bar and Pearl’s Patio Smokehouse. Both serve the same basic menu consisting of your typical snack bar fare – burgers, hot dogs, pizza, nachos, ice cream, etc. Gluten free options and beer are available.

The snack bar offers diners lunch seated at covered tables surrounded by pools of sun-loving gators lounging on concrete decks. Pearl’s offers picnic tables in a screened enclosure protecting diners from the reptiles, but mostly from the gaggle of seemingly wild birds that flock about ready to snatch from you any morsel they can. Those birds are serious thieves. Be warned.

BBQ Pork Sandwich and Fries at Pearl's Patio in Gatorland

I chose to dine at Pearl’s, away from the pesky birds (and their droppings).

The menu items at Pearl’s are priced lower than what you might find at the larger attractions in town. No $11 mugs of Butterbeer here (Budweiser $3.99). That’s a very nice thing to find in a city of amusement parks run by corporate giants Disney and Universal. Gatorland is truly an afternoon of adventure a family can experience together and not spend a fortune. Thank you Gatorland.

Gator Nuggets at Orlando's Gatorland

Being that Pearl’s Patio has “smokehouse” in the name, I chose the Bar-B-Que Sandwich ($4.09). But let’s be honest, this is barbecue pork scooped from a big tub bought from a food distributor. Smokehouse is just part of the restaurant’s name. But it was a big scoop, the bun was fresh, and for what it was, it wasn’t bad. I enjoyed it.

A side of fries ($2.29) and a Large Dr. Pepper served in a souvenir cup ($3.99 with $1.19 refills), rounded out my lunch. A whole lunch for the price of a single Butterbeer. Not bad.

Okay, okay, I had to. I tried the Gator Nuggets ($7.99). The fried alligator bites blew my lunch budget, but you know I had to try them.

An example of the once ubiquitous Gatorland sign

Munching on bites of fried gator meat, while surrounded by hundreds of blood thirsty, vicious, man-eating, terrible reptiles, I couldn’t help but feel master of all I survey and king atop the food chain. I did, however, wish the nuggets had come with some kind of dipping sauce. Can the king please get a side of ranch?

Oh, and yes, alligator tastes like chicken – tough, chewy, gamey chicken.

For a nice morning or afternoon with your family, whether you’re a Florida resident or a visitor from another continent, Gatorland is a nice, inexpensive alternative to the big seven theme parks in Orlando . There’s just enough kitsch, just enough education, just enough history, and just enough fun for everyone.

The Park: 4 Teeth out of 5
Pearl's Patio Smokehouse: 3 Tails out of 5

Pearl's Patio Smokehouse
Inside Gatorland
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail
Orlando, FL 32837

Phone: 407-855-5496

Open Daily 9-5

Pearl's Patio Smokehouse on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Just to make it clear: Gatorland does not use their own gators as food...
Otherwise, love the article!

Eating Orlando said...


Do you know where the gator meat served at Gatorland comes from? And what are the gators used for that are bred at Gatorland? Are they sold to others to be used as food? Leather?


Anonymous said...

Gatorland uses their alligators strictly for educational reasons within the park and outside. Such as zoos, hotels, etc...
The gator meat comes from a local gator farm.

Anonymous said...

They don't they have the meat shipped in they do not believe in harming the animals at there park.

Anonymous said...

They do not believe in harming the animals that are in there park, but they will let other people harm other animals to get wonderful gator meat. Did you know that some cowboy boots are made with gator skin and if the meat is not used it is thrown away.