The ghost of Owen Godwin hangs over Gatorland, but not literally, of course, not like the stuntman who hung in restraints above swarming alligators during filming at the roadside park last month for NBC's "The World's Greatest Magic."
Owen would have loved it. The showman who founded Gatorland 50 years ago in a dirt pit at the edge of Highway 441 south of Orlando knew well the value of a gimmick. In those early years Owen left his family behind while he hit the local fairs and boardwalks up north, subsidizing his enterprise a dime at a time by selling peeks at a gator he called Cannibal Jake.
Then, as now, people just kept lining up for a look.
By the time Owen died in 1975 the family's poverty stories were long past. Gatorland may not be a diamond in the rough-and-tumble world of Central Florida tourism, but it's a precious gem the founding family has continued to polish.
Around them, the area's original roadside come-ons continue to collapse, beaten down by corporations who built a plastic paradise that became the world's top tourist magnet. St. Petersburg's Sunken Gardens was sold last year to an owner who envisions a nudist camp. Marineland went out of business altogether. But like the descendants of dinosaurs that are its bread-and-butter, Gatorland survives by accepting itself as it is: a charming, kitschy curiosity that serves up a small piece of the wild in a place where the wilderness is shrinking all the time.
It helps that for visitors to Florida, alligators will never lose their allure. They need not know how easily these meat-eaters can be controlled. "Our main weapon in dealing with these alligators is a broomstick," says Nick Clark, Gatorland's education supervisor. "Actually, that's our only weapon. Shooting 'em just makes 'em mad."
Upgrades have given the creatures room to vent their anger, should they care to. This past Labor Day saw the opening of Jungle Crocs of the World, a $1 million expansion that followed other additions in the 1990s: a gator-wrestling arena, the requisite kids' splash-and-play area, a Florida Cracker-style setting designed in part for catering, and a 10-acre breeding marsh that spreads beneath a three-deck observation tower.
But the staples have not been replaced. Tin rooftops still afford shade on the long, narrow exhibit walkway past the occasional concrete-block pen. A Polaroid photographer still sells snapshots -- $5.66 plus tax -- of guests wrapped by a 3-foot python and holding a young gator whose snout is taped shut, along with the certification, "All reptiles used in this photograph are alive." The Jumparoo show still features gators who use their tails to push up from the bottom of the lake to snap at chicken dangled in their direction, an exercise that both educates and appalls but never fails to bring a smile. (Although waiting for the "jump" by gators that are old and overweight can have all the excitement of a turtle race.) And there's more than gators: The park added camel rides a few months ago, to go along with "Judy, Judy, Judy" the Florida black bear, plus deer, emus, llamas and goats in a petting zoo, "just to give the kids a chance to pet something that won't eat 'em," says Clark.
Owen's original 15 acres purchased alongside what was then Florida's second-busiest stretch of highway has been expanded to 50 acres, with another 50 to grow. His youngest son, Frank, ran the place for more than 20 years after Owen's death; the current CEO is Mark McHugh, a former trainer at Sea World who married into the family and took over from Frank in 1996.
Still visible at the park's entrance is the former family home where Owen's wife, Pearl, encountered an occasional gator in the bathtub. And the best gift shop in Central Florida displays both $4 toys and $4,000 gator-hide briefcases. To enter the shop you need not even pay the park's fee; just walk in the signature entrance, added in 1962 to resemble a gaping gator jaw.
That feature is both emblem and repellent. And Gatorland execs know it. But they'd have it no other way.
"It just sort of looks tacky," says Christine Berry, a visitor from England, describing her scrunched-nose reluctance to stop in with her sister, who herself was visiting Gatorland for a fourth time. "But it's lovely over there," she says, referring to the marsh setting. "I'll definitely recommend it."
Why? The answer is easy.
It's the gators, stupid.