When most folks hear you’re headed to Orlando, they figure a visit to Disney World, Epcot Center, Universal Studios or maybe Cirque du Soleil is in your horoscope. Few think GATORLAND.

On our return flight from Orlando, I overheard a woman comment to her companion, as she mounted the shuttle, “We spent an entire week in Florida and didn’t see one gator!”

I shouted at her: “I saw millions! In one afternoon!”

At any rate, it seemed like millions. Granted a few of them with pointy noses were crocs, but the majority were American alligators, and I witnessed them posed like statues as if made of stone despite huge egrets promenading on their spiny backs. I watched these prehistoric-like creatures gliding in the water despite white egrets surfing on them.  I viewed them mid-gulp, mouth open, 82 teeth showing despite tasty egrets within an easy snap of their jarring jaws and razor sharp dental work. Gators lie on top of each other, pell-mell.  They lounge in the sun. Many float in the lagoons.  Some are in private sheltered boxes because they are too ornery to be with other gators. Signs abound. Several warn.  One told you about Bruno who attacks lawn mowers, weed whackers, and the unlucky guys who operate them. Besides the run- of- the -mill dark alligator, there are albino gators and other white ones with blue eyes called Leucistic. Now the white gators with pink eyes (because of blood vessels showing through transparent tissue) have other deformities like crossed jaws and curved spines. These albinos don’t survive long. Yet, white leucistic alligators are hardy; they don’t get along with other gators. Discovered in 1987 in Louisiana, only 12 of these white gators exist in the world. They say great fortune comes to those who stare directly into the deep blue eyes of the mystical white gator, and I suppose that could be true if the gators are behind the glass window, secured, but I can’t imagine great luck would descend on the poor Cajun who accidentally stepped on one of these fellows they call Feros Zombis!

The shows, Mark and the other trainers put on, were Vegas quality. They’d give us a little information; entertain us with stories like how Florida crackers got their moniker (from cracking bullwhips at cattle or at gators, in gator holes, where the gators grab thirsty cows.)  The trainers summoned volunteers from the audience to sit atop a gator with its mouth taped shut; they assured the audience participants that they used the cheapest tape available to do the job! (That elicited a nervous twitter.) They’d have audience members open boxes without the volunteers knowing the contents. Some containers held tarantulas and long boas from India. Mark told us that alligators are 90 % muscle.  He assured us that he, as gator wrestler, was himself 90% McDonald’s. Mark waded into the water and grabbed this one fellow by the tail who hissed menacingly, and then Mark counted to three and landed on him and pushed his snout down. But, he got a mouthful of water: “Gatorade!” he joked.

“This end may beat you,” he told us as he pointed to the tail, “but this end will eat you.”  Then he quipped, “Here you go!”  A moment later he yelled:” Watch this!”  These commanding words he said just before he pried open the reptile’s mouth to place his neck precariously close.  “Those two words usually are the last words of a redneck. Or maybe these: “Hold my beer… and my tooth.”

The shows were a stitch and vastly entertaining not because of the comical personalities of the trainers but due to the real element of danger.  In addition to the exhibitions, the place is exceedingly educational.  I saw birds: cormorants – the dark ones in the trees which are expert fishermen; and Anhinga, known as snake birds; wood storks with ugly faces that look like vultures; greater egrets with green around the face; blue herons, grackles, turkeys, and parakeets known as budgies. I learned that baby alligators like baby birds have an “egg tooth” at the end of the snout used to crack the eggshell open when ready to hatch and that egg tooth will later disappear, just as those in turtles too.

More terrifying to me than gators and crocs are snakes; there were hordes of them. We saw arboreal green snakes, southern copperheads, Florida Cottonmouths, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Pygmy Rattlesnakes, Eastern Indigo snakes, Canebrake Rattlesnake, Coachwhip snakes… Five venomous ones live in Florida which gave the swamp walk an eerie aspect. So, as I peered upward to look at the air plants or epiphytes high on cypress trees, I didn’t let my gaze tarry long before I glanced downward, making sure no stray cottonmouth climbed up to join me on the boardwalk through the swamp, which was what Orlando land was. Now, that soggy land has become Disney— land. I admired the tupelo trees and stared at the cypress knees protruding from the murky water. I saw the taro plant and recalled eating that stuff in Hawaii. While all the time watching out for poison ivy, I recalled some wisdom: “Leaves of five, let it thrive; leaves of three, let it be.”  I marveled at the Spanish moss and learned that it’s not a parasite as I have thought all these many uninformed years. Lastly, we rode the kid train. There was more to do with a petting zoo and a restaurant and a third show; however, a friend told me of a great restaurant in Winter Park called The Ravenous Pig and after a full day of hiking and staring at gators, birds, snakes, tilapia and perch in the water, I thought I felt a bit like a ravenous pig myself, physically hungry although mentally sated with knowledge and emotionally satisfied with my good time, had at Gatorland.

Happiness doesn’t have to be a five -star hotel with spa or achieving your life’s dream or winning the lottery.  Happiness is as simple as a day trip where you live in the moment. And sometimes embarking on what one thinks is a “kid trip” can be a fun-filled, satisfying, mind-expanding adventure for the big, “over thirty and then some” kids too!



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