Classic Florida attraction Gatorland celebrates 70th anniversary with Gatorpalooza on Saturday

click to enlarge Gatorland CEO Mark McHugh - image via Gatorland on YouTube
image via Gatorland on YouTube
Gatorland CEO Mark McHugh
From representing the University of Florida to co-starring in “Florida's greatest photo” with a taxidermied raccoon on its head, the alligator is truly the spirit animal of the Sunshine State.

And Gatorland, the “Alligator Capital of the World,” is the quintessential tourist-trap-turned-legit Florida story. The oldest theme park in the Orlando area, it’s a place of dangling poultry and expectations, where children and parents have gawked at gators and crocodiles for seven sweaty decades.

Gatorpalooza on Saturday, May 18, will mark the Kissimmee theme park’s 70th birthday, no small feat in the shadow of nearby Walt Disney World, which turns a relatively sprightly 48 this year. Pre-dating the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex by 18 years, Gatorland has updated their offerings through the years, adding an exotic-bird aviary and overhead rides like the “Screamin' Gator” zip line and the Gator Gauntlet.

Saturday will feature live music, vendors and artisans, contests, and giveaways. If you have never been to Gatorland, Gatorpalooza may be both the worst and the best day to go. Visitors will probably not experience quiet boardwalk strolls to spot a critter first, but the 20 percent discount on annual passes adds considerable value through return visits.

Come back later for a tough-but-necessary conversation with the kids near the Breeding Marsh, or rekindle a romance in front of Flamingo Island. Overcome perfectly reasonable phobias of snakes and scorpions along the Mile of Monsters, or experience the Emu Enclosure on a quieter day in November.

Gatorland’s wildlife focus has drawn millions of visitors through its iconic, gator-mouth entrance, and optional photography passes allow visitors year-round access to the park before and after regular opening hours. The 110-acre park’s newest stars are animal guides with names like Bubba and Cooter, who discuss taking care of the parks’ giant tortoises, wild cats, birds, and namesake reptiles.

click to enlarge Gatorland Crocodilian Enrichment Coordinator Savannah Boan - photo by Rob Bartlett
photo by Rob Bartlett
Gatorland Crocodilian Enrichment Coordinator Savannah Boan

The park’s Crocodilian Enrichment Coordinator, Savannah Boan, is a bona fide local celebrity, with profiles in the Daily Mail, Fox News, Southern Living magazine and of course here in Orlando Weekly. Boan, who says “crocodiles and alligators are a lot smarter than people think,” is a former Marine air traffic controller and Orlando radio personality who also serves as the International Ambassador for Gatorland Global.

Boan’s duties include a daily walk with a 12-foot alligator, and she will be on hand Saturday with Gatorland CEO Mark McHugh for an “exclusive gator feeding” on the park’s North Island, along with a press announcement ahead of the event.

A portion of Saturday’s proceeds will go to the Boy Scouts of Central Florida, which serves girls and boys with educational skills and activities. You can earn your own gator merit badge this Saturday between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at Gatorpalooza Fun Fest.

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