What’s it take to run one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions? Recently, I spent the day at Gatorama alligator farm in Southwest Florida to find out.
What’s That Chirping Sound?
Inside the walk-in incubator at Gatorama, Allen Register lightly tapped a white, plastic tray. A chirping sound called out from the bed of olive colored sphagnum moss. More than a dozen alligator eggs, each with a black stripe made with a permanent marker, were perfectly lined up under a layer of moss. The chirping sound indicates the hatchling inside the egg is ready to use his egg tooth to break free and begin life on the outside.
Before Disney, There Was Gatorama
Opened in 1957 and well before Walt Disney World (the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971), Gatorama in Palmdale is one of Florida’s last original roadside attractions. Today, it is a working alligator farm, American crocodile breeding facility, popular family-friendly eco adventure park with hands-on activities, and relatively recently, seller of alligator meat including a delicious smoked alligator and pork sausage. Patty’s family purchased the farm in 1987.
Is There Such a Thing as a Typical Day at an Alligator Farm?
A dozen employees work on a Saturday and the day begins at 7:30 a.m. when Allen leads a meeting with the operations team. This is the team who ensures the facility and animals, including alligators, crocodiles, tortoises, snakes, peacocks, bobcats, a panther, and donkey, a parrot, and others, are fed, maintained, and ready for visitors.
The team includes zookeepers Claire Hickman and Ben Register, Patty and Allen’s son, and curator Greg Graziani. Fans of the television show Python Hunters on the Nat Geo Wild channel will recognize Graziani as one of the stars. This is also the team who lead the various activities available to visitors, such as Uncle Waders Catch a Gator Pond, Fast Hands or No Hands Gator Feeding, and the Face to Face Challenge.
Patty leads the retail meeting at 8:30 a.m. This is the team who greets visitors and helps them plan their visit. They also ensure the gift shop is fully stocked and clean.
Marketing the Festival
After the meeting, Patty uploads a post to their Facebook page promoting the Hatching Festival, an opportunity to hatch an alligator from an egg in the palm of your hands. The festival is the last two weeks of August. The incubation time of an alligator is 65 days and some of the 4,353 eggs collected this year were ready for hatching the week before the festival.
To prepare for the day, signs promoting the early hatching are placed in front of the attraction. Patty prints off gift certificates that will be personalized and given to hatching participants. The certificate alerts “Gators, Crocs and Other Swamp Critters” the document holder has been “initiated into the rarefied, cracked and scrambled order of the Southern Behemoths of the Swamp Lowland” and signed by Patty Register, Cracker-in-Chief. Décor, specifically eggs of all sizes, are gathered in a vintage wheelbarrow and pushed to the Crackin’ Barn.
An Alligator of a Different Color
Dave Defibaugh of Aldeans Wholesale arrives just after 10 a.m. His truck is full of souvenirs and his business model allows Patty to walk through the truck with her inventory sheet and pick out products for the gift shop. Dave helps her by pointing out best sellers and new products.
“I need sequin gators,” Patty told Dave. Along with several plush sequin gators, she ends up with a large congregation of cuddly gators. They come in colors of white, pink, various shades of green, and camouflage. She also picks out alligator slippers; backpacks; bathtub toys; brush, comb and mirror set; and toy hatching eggs.
“Woooo! Neon alligators!” Patty yelled from the back of the truck.
In addition to plush alligators, she selects plastic, rubber, and resin toys along with artistic glass gators. Knowing her audience, she also selects snake and turtle toys.
During the shopping bonanza, Central Florida-based travel blogger Jason Mayhew of Off on the Go arrives with his family, eager for an adventurous day. The alligator farm owner helps the family plan their visit.
Sidebar: Florida’s blogging community is small and I’ve known Jason for years. Check out his blog.
Let the Festivities Begin!
We head back to the Crackin’ Barn and stop at Uncle Waders Catch a Gator Pond where Patty shouts out words of encouragement to the children. Participants wade in an ankle-deep pond with a dozen or so spunky reptiles. The gators are between 2 and 3 feet long and have their mouths secured to prevent nipping. Participants build confidence by picking up these swamp critters. The proper way to pick them up is by the base of the tail then using the other hand to grab them behind their front legs.
Before the day’s first of two hatchings, more preparations need to be done, including cleaning. Patty affixes her Hatching Festival crown made with alligator scutes and teeth and seashells and welcomes visitors into the barn.
“I’m so excited you’ve come!” she exclaims, while handing out beaded necklaces with plastic alligators.
Once everyone is seated, Allen tells the crowd about a day in June when he and his son Ben collected alligator eggs. They met the not-so-happy mamma gator. Collected eggs are marked with a marker to indicate which way is up and they must be kept in the up position for the embryo to develop.
Allen then shares how a hatchling is ready to emerge because he is an “eggs-pert” when it comes to gator hatchings. After instructing how to help an alligator hatch from its shell, a dozen participants pick up gloves and head to the moss-lined troughs to begin the hatching.
Watching Life Emerge from an Egg
Children and adults participate and once they receive their egg, it is less than a minute before the hatchling uses its egg tooth to crack its way out. With Gatorama staff looking on and guiding, each participant helps their baby gator and once fully out of its shell, tucks the shell under the slimy newborn’s belly. After the photo opps, hatchlings are carefully placed in white buckets and delivered to an out-of-sight nursery.
“Welcome to the family! We’re now country cousins!” Patty enthusiastically says to each hatching participant while shaking their hand then giving them a certificate.
What do the Zookeepers Do?
It is about 1:30 p.m. and I follow zookeeper Claire Hickman to Uncle Waders where she helps children, and adults like me, catch their first alligators. Having their mouths wrapped shut makes it less intimidating when they jump up or whip their head toward your hand. It took two tries before I successfully grabbed a gator.
Snacktime is next for the resident Florida panther and bobcats and I follow Claire. The panther was born in captivity several years ago and has been at this Florida attraction about a year. He and the bobcats do not have survival skills for their natural habitat so Gatorama is their home. The zookeeper feeds them chunks of raw chicken and beef. Afterwards, she facilitates an animal encounter where a little girl feeds celery to a large tortoise.
Around 2 p.m., it is time to refuel with a sampling of fried alligator bites, alligator ribs, and the bold-flavored alligator and pork sausage, all served on site. (Sidebar: the alligator and pork sausage is one of the most delicious thing I have eaten. The sausage, gator tail, and gator ribs are sold at Gatorama so you can take it home and prepare it your way.)
Looking into Gator Jaws
Visitors gather on the Front Bridge to watch and listen to Claire. Gatorama’s goal is to educate the role of alligators and crocodiles in the environment and 2:30 daily is the Crocodile Feed Show. Seeing and probably smelling the dangling raw meat in Claire’s hand, an alpha American crocodile lifts his head out of the water and opens his jaws expecting to be fed. During the feeding, the zookeeper talks about crocodiles and what makes them incredible creatures.
Following the feeding is the Fast Hands No Hands experience where Claire shows brave souls how to feed American alligators. I joined her on the boardwalk as she waved her hand over the water and the heads of hungry and large gators bobbed up and down. I was given balls of Croc Crunch (alligator food) and when the gators opened their mouths, I was to throw one in their mouth. Looking into the mouth of a toothy reptile a few feet away is a bit intimidating yet exhilarating. I ended up 1 for 5 in hitting the target.
Face to Face with an Alligator
Next is the Face to Face Challenge which was introduced the summer of 2018.
I follow Patty, Claire, and curator Greg Graziani to a platform next to the alligator area. I feel eyes in the water following us but try to remain cool.
“Alligators choose to participate in this activity,” Greg said.
A very large gator, about 12 feet long, named Ben comes up and Greg lays a stick down. My job is to stand behind the stick, a few feet from the gator’s mouth, and on Greg’s command, toss a ball of Croc Crunch into the alligator’s mouth. This should be easy, but I miss after a few tries. The gator’s mouth, teeth, and skin color fascinate me. Then comes the photo opportunity of kneeling by his tail and placing my hand on his back. Behind me, I hear other alligators making their way from the pond onto the grass and was ready to quickly pop up and out of my bent knee position.
Two other alligators, Spike and Vampire, join Ben, as Greg discusses the farm’s training process. They use a reward system with food, voice tone, and gentle touch. Interestingly, they show affection and respect for Greg.
Little Details Make a Big Impact
The final gator hatching begins at 3 p.m. While Allen retells his story about collecting eggs, Patty, Claire, and I fold towels used to dry feet after venturing into Uncle Waders Pond. After the participants hatch their alligators and receive their certificates, it is time to call it a day.
It is after 4 p.m. and the door into the gift shop and main entrance is locked. Two employees who have been in the gift shop since the morning are restocking souvenirs and cleaning. Patty will end her day almost like the way she began it, posting to social media.
“See you later, alligator,” she says after saying goodbye.
“After while crocodile!” I reply and begin my 70-minute drive home. I am tired, sweaty, enriched, and happy thinking about everything I experienced and learned at Gatorama. And, I am very appreciative of the generosity of the Register Family. Not only with the time the shared with me but the energy and time they spent ensuring visitors had a positive visit.
One of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions inspires a renewed outlook on day-to-day life, especially if you are lucky to have life emerge from an egg in the palms of their hands.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Gatorama
General Admission (Everyone over 5′): $20
Junior Admission (5′ or less) $10
Children Under 3′ are free
Discounts apply for Seniors 65+.
Hands-on activities such as Uncle Waders Catch a Gator Pond, Fast Hands or No Hands, Face to Face Challenge, and Hatching Festival are additional fees.
Gator Hatching Festival
2019 Hatching Festival Pricing: Adult general admission with incubator tour and hatching is $45, those under 60” are $35. Advance reservations strongly recommended.
Additional Photos on Flickr
My first-hand experience reiterates the importance of family-owned and operated businesses. Patty, Allen, and their son Ben put their heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into the operation. The results are one-of-a-kind memories visitors will cherish for a lifetime.
Note: Gatorama staff are trained professionals. Do not feed or handle alligators in their native habitat, it is against the law and dangerous.