Gators! Pt. 2: Size Matters
RoadsideAmerica.com Guide to Florida Alligator Attractions
The first shot in the big gator battle was fired by Owen Godwin, who ran a struggling attraction in Kissimmee named The Florida Wildlife Institute. In the early 1950s Owen bought a 15-foot gator, named it Bone Crusher, and displayed it as the largest crocodilian in captivity. He offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove him wrong. No one ever did.
Godwin also bought Cannibal Jake, a 12-footer that he would drive north in a trailer during the slow summer months and show to people for a dime a peek (Cannibal Jake lived in a custom-built bathtub.)
The skulls of these two celebrity crocodilians, whose size helped to turn The Florida Wildlife Institute into "Gatorland: Alligator Capital of the World," are preserved in a glass display case next to the Gatorland wrestling pit.
The term "crocodilian" is important. That's because the dirty little secret of the gator size wars is that the largest ones, like Bone Crusher, aren't alligators at all -- they're crocodiles, which grow larger than any gator ever will. To tourists, however, gators and crocs look the same -- and they always look bigger than they actually are. "How big do you think this gator is?" we were asked by a wrestler at Everglades Alligator Farm in Florida City, who had just dragged one into the ring. We guessed nine feet. The wrestler laughed. It was a puny six-footer. This penchant for gator enlargement does not escape the attention of some attraction owners, who have been known to tack on a foot or two or three to their star gator's stats.
Several big alligators currently on display are worth a visit. Perhaps the nimblest and scariest is Lung, a 15-footer at Native Village in Hollywood, Florida, which we watched spinning and charging in repeated attempts to eat its keeper. Goliath "the serial killer" at Gatorama Wildlife Park in Palmdale is probably the meanest, a 14-footer who would be 16 feet if he hadn't lost two feet of tail in a fight, and whose cage is hung with the skulls of nine other gators that he has bested in battle.
For years, the biggest gator in Florida was Big Joe (d. 2003) at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs, and the biggest croc was Gomek (d. 1997) at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Both died of the good life -- too much food and too little effort to get it. Jim Darlington, the senior keeper at St. Augustine, admitted that Gomek was "a blimp" and told us that he'd been put on a diet before he died, but by then it was too late. Both Big Joe and Gomek are stuffed -- as they were in life -- and displayed at their respective attractions, as is another big, fat gator, Superman (d. 2005), a 14-footer at Billie Swamp Safari in Clewiston. Gomek, at almost 18 feet and 2,000 pounds, was the champion croc of his day.
Gomek's dimensions, however, seem small compared to those of the two biggest crocodilians currently on view, although neither is in a Florida gator park, and one isn't even in Florida.
Utan, "King of the Crocs," is the big draw at Alligator Adventure -- "The Reptile Capital of the World" -- in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He reportedly is 20 feet long and weighs over a ton. Similar statistics are given for Florida's champion, Hank the "Crocosaurus," at Parrot Jungle Island in Miami. Recent visits to Hank and Maximo, another big croc, showed them in typical super-saurian form: motionless, submerged in murky water, offering a view of little more than their tails.
Verifying their size is impossible. Despite the crocodilian's fondness for not moving, you do not want to try to stretch out a full-size gator -- even a relatively puny 15-footer -- so that you can run a tape measure down its back. As Bob Freer at Everglades Alligator Farm explained, "One swipe of the tail can break every bone in your body."
Even quasi-dinosaurs like Hank and Utan are puny compared to two man-made Florida alligator titans. One gator statue, outside Jungleland Zoo in Kissimmee, is 126 feet long, has blinking red eyes, and holds a crushed safari jeep in its mouth. The other, the biggest of all, is named Swampy and contains the gift shop and offices of Jungle Adventures in Christmas, Florida. His length, according to our tape measure: 200 feet, 1 inch.