Gators! Pt. 3: The Feeding Show
RoadsideAmerica.com Guide to Florida Alligator Attractions
One way to get an otherwise sullen gator to do something is to show it food. This creates motion and excitement, and when you have a dozen gators lunging and hissing at once, you have something that the public will pay to see.
The classic version of this approach was practiced at Everglades Wonder Gardens. The guide excused him or herself from the tour, ducked into a shed, and returned with a pan full of glistening, freshly-chopped meat. "You might want to stay back," the guide cautioned -- not because of the gators, but because the pan is surrounded by a cloud of buzzing horseflies. Piece after piece of meat was then hurled over a concrete wall into the pit, where the hungry gators fought for them in the pea-soup water.
Splashing gators is good -- but leaping gators is even better. We first saw this improvement in the 1980s, when Cecil Clemens owned Gatorama. Cecil would march out onto the boardwalk over the gator pond and dangle a loaf of bread, still in its wrapper, above the swampy green surface. Instantly -- as we remember it -- the pond would erupt into a frenzy of leaping gators. Cecil, who had a complex relationship with his reptiles, would simply chuckle, tuck the loaf under his arm, and walk back to the gift shop for a cigarette and a beer.
Cecil is gone now, and although Gatorama remains a worthy attraction -- it has almost 4,000 crocodilians in its ponds -- the forefront of gator jumping has moved to Gatorland. Perhaps inspired by the antics of Cecil, or perhaps by the leaping dolphins that used to perform at Marineland, Gatorland began its Gator Jumparoo show in the 1980s.
Gator Jumparoo works like this: A dinner bell is rung next to the big pond, and a pack of 20 or so ten-footers swim over in anticipation. The pond is surrounded by a covered boardwalk, lined with tourists, camcorders at the ready. Signs warn everybody not to lean out over the water. Music blares over loudspeakers as chicken carcasses are hung on a kind of Swiss sky ride cable-and-pulley system, then run out over the pond. The gators jockey for position, rocket out of the water -- sometimes nearly five feet straight up -- grab the meat, and then fall back with a mighty splash.
The show ends when several lucky tourists are chosen to stand on an overhanging platform and dangle carcasses at the end of fishing poles, while the rest of the gators rip chicken out of the outstretched hands of Gatorland employees.
The Jumparoo show is popular, and variants of it have spread to other gator attractions, but not to all. It will never pass muster at a place such as St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, which is mindful of appearances and which has gone so far as to replace the meat in many of its feeding shows with food pellets.
This may be tasteful, but it's hardly the stuff to create lasting vacation memories. Even Jim Darlington, the senior keeper at St. Augustine -- and a believer in serious gator farm management -- couldn't restrain a smile as he recalled one show in which he tossed an alligator a Nutria (a big swamp rodent), its guts fell out in mid-air, and a tough-looking biker chick promptly threw up.