When you live in an area for a long time you take for granted all the typical things that make your area unique. Tourists visit Florida and are in awe of the palm trees and white sandy beaches. They get fired up over alligators and dolphins and manatees, but when you live here, you take them all in stride. But today we decided to get out of the house and let the boys get close up and personal to one of the Florida creatures that we normally tell them to avoid like their life depends on it - which it does. The Florida Alligator.
We took the boys to Gatorland, which is Central Florida's oldest theme park. It was built in 1949, long before Disney and Universal, and is still owned by the grandchildren of the original founders. It's a 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve and is known as the Alligator Capital of the World.
Our first stop was the Alligator Wrestling show where two guys dressed like Steve Irwin, but with pants and whips, pull a four to five foot gator out of a pit onto a sand platform and perform various stunts with him. They crack the whip and tell you that the crack of the whip is why natural-born Floridians are called Florida crackers. Florida used to be the second largest cattle-producing state in the U.S. and they'd crack the whips to get the cattle moving. Alligator wrestling started when alligators would pick off cattle and ranchers would hire wrestlers to catch the gators and move them away from their precious herds. We saw all the good tricks: jumping on the gator's back, holding his mouth open and laying him on his back to put him to sleep.
Then we went to the Alligator Jumparoo, which is a crowd favorite, but not quite as exciting in the cooler weather. Since alligators are cold-blooded and it was in the low 60s today, they were doing what we were doing - looking for a sunny spot and trying to get warm. You can tell that jumping up for a piece of chicken wasn't as exciting in that cold water, but one alligator was up for the challenge, so we got a photo op and the boys found it exciting.
Gatorland also has the world's largest collection of albino alligators. I'm convinced they aren't true albinos though, since they have blue eyes and not pink. I'll have to look into that. I quite enjoyed seeing a gardener being led into one of the albino alligator enclosures with one of the alligator wranglers. He was picking out weeds from the plant beds, but started moving like Flash Gordon when the big white gator started hissing and baring his teeth. We all got a good giggle out of that one.
A highlight of the trip was when the boys got to eat alligator meat for lunch. You can choose alligator bites, alligator ribs or a combo of both. We chose the bites because we've eaten them before and they're not too messy. Both boys were very intrigued and enjoyed eating the alligator. People always ask what gator tastes like - of course it tastes like chicken, but I'd describe it as a tough chicken with a little bit of a fishy vibe to it - almost like if you mixed shark and chicken together. Doesn't sound appealing, but it's not bad at all.
A highlight for me was seeing the big bull gators performing their impressive bellowing behavior. They do it to attract females and show other males how imposing they are. You really have to see it to believe it. They fill their chests with air and raise up out of the water. Their heads point upward and the bellowing is so intense that the water on the gators back literally jumps up and down like a tiny dancing water show. If you ever hear that noise and you're near a lake in Florida, it's a very good time to run. Fast.
It was just an all-around good day out. We all needed to get out of the house together as a family and the boys really seemed to soak it all in. If you ever come to Central Florida and want a break from the commercialism of Disney World, give Gatorland a visit.
To make it a learning experience we're bringing out Suzanne Tate's book "Izzy Lizzy Alligator" from her Nature Series. We have quite a few of her books and we love them. They're simply written and illustrated and all have a great message. Izzy Lizzy Alligator follows the story of a mother alligator and how pollution affects her hatchlings. I know the boys see this book in a different light after visiting real live alligators at Gatorland.