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For a hot time in the old time, suit up

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Summer Guide:

What's eight feet tall and packed in ice, yet still manages to sweat off pounds of its own weight at 30-minute intervals? No, it's not Sharon Stone; it's Allie the Alligator, the recently-introduced mascot of Gatorland. And this summer, the space inside Allie's costume may be the hottest spot in town.

Other attractions have had lots of time to perfect keeping their costumed characters cool. But it's something new at the longtime landmark on South Orange Blossom Trail. No one's venturing a guess as to just what kinds of temperatures are generated inside the mammoth exoskeleton that Allie calls a bod (though estimates rest in the grey area between "surface of the sun" and "hotter than a teamster's armpit"). But hauling Allie's carcass around in the summer sun isn't a job for the fainthearted or lightheaded.

"It is hot," says Christopher Bell, director of marketing for Gatorland. "You have to be young and have the stamina. On an 80-plus-degree day, (you) will come out absolutely soaking wet, ice cubes notwithstanding."

The frozen water to which he refers is packed onto the shoulders and forehead of the hapless character actor inside Allie's costume via a vest-like apparatus. For further cooling relief, a battery-operated fan is built into the suit's headpiece. But despite these palliative measures, the Fahrenheit count inside Allie's hide remains so oppressive that his appearances are restricted to half an hour in duration. Then, it's off to the juice bar for a refreshing banana-and-unwary-toddler smoothie (he is an alligator, after all).

"The key is to make it comfortable for the individual," says Bell of the frequent time-outs. "But the better-made the costume is, the hotter it's going to be." Allie's getup, he points out, is made of the same material used for NFL player uniforms. And we've all seen how they sweat.

You'd never guess the extent of his suffering from Allie's cheerful demeanor. Barmey the dinsaur was said to be the model for Allie's swamp-bred but essentially harmless mien ("I love you ... you love me ... mess with me and you're an amputee").

Currently, Allie is "acted" by a pair of young staffers from the park's entertainment division. But the best Allie, according to Bell, is Gatorland CEO Mark McHugh, who dresses up as the happy croc for employee meetings and functions. The former curator and head whale trainer at Sea World, McHugh "has worked with animals all his life, and has a lot of entertainer in him," Bell gushes. "It's a great way to humanize the CEO."

You read it here first: transforming an executive into a reptile apparently constitutes a step up the evolutionary scale. But what happens when McHugh gets as uncomfortable in Allie's bantam-weight skin as any able-bodied day worker?

"Then he takes off the head, and we have our regular meeting," Bell says.


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