Cecil Clemons.
Cecil Clemons in 1985.

Gatorama - Cecil Clemons

Field review by the editors.

Palmdale, Florida

Gatorama was the creation of Cecil Clemons, who died in 1997. We met Cecil in 1985, a year before he sold his attraction and retired. A real Florida swamp character, he held court in the epilogue of the first Roadside America book. From "Tourist Go Home" (1986):

Gatorama, in Palmdale, FL, is billed as "the world's largest alligator farm" by its owner, a former exterminator from Wildwood, NJ, named Cecil Clemons. "This place was all jungle," he recalls. "I started the business with the full intention of having my son eventually take over, but then he decided it was too much work. Last I heard, he was in Alaska."

Cecil smokes.

Cecil spends most of his time in an overstuffed leather chair in the Gatorama gift shop; his business earns the bulk of its profit from selling alligators, not from tourism. "The public is a pain in the rear, anyway," he explains. "Always asking 10,000 questions. Hell, if it weren't for selling my gators, I couldn't survive. They chew up a ton of chicken a week."

"Used to be when I had billboards up and could advertise, business was better," Cecil continues, "but when Lady Bird Johnson was our President -- Lyndon only did what she told him to do, you know -- she decided to 'beautify' the highways. Cut down 11 of my brand-new 8 x 16' billboards. ... But she cut her own throat at the same time, 'cause when you cut down a man's income, you knock the hell out of the sales tax. That's all that she done when she was our President -- ruin the damn state of Florida and everywhere else. ... Now you got to go through an act of Congress to even spit out there on the highway."

These days, Gatorama's large lakes full of gators and crocs are covered with slime and very quiet. The quarter mile walkway through the animal pens is nearly deserted. And Cecil anticipates bidding his attraction (and the alligator business in general) good-bye.

Cecil Clemons.

"There was a real estate man in here yesterday wanting to know if I wanted to sell the place and I told him yeah. I'm retiring. I'll go to an old folks home and let them take care of me. That'll be all right, I guess. I just hope the Government don't take my pension and send it overseas."

Most gator attractions sell tourists a couple of slices of stale bread to feed their charges. Not Cecil. He sells you the whole loaf. "Be sure and bring the wrapper back," he cautions. Gators have no common sense. They'll eat the wrapper and suffocate.

Cecil gave us a special feeding demonstration. As we followed him down the creaky, elevated wooden swamp walk, his mood shifted, and weariness seemed to leave his bones. Gone was the anger and resentment of minutes before. His eyes shone in the bright Florida sun. He hung over the edge of his largest gator pond and dangled a bagged loaf of bread a few inches from the surface. "Come on heyah!" he whooped. "Come on heyah!" The pond suddenly erupted into a tempest of leaping, bread-crazed gators, openmouthed and hissing. Cecil just chuckled, tucked the still-intact loaf under his arm, and walked back to his chair in the gift shop.

"If I'd have known you fellahs was coming, I'd have gotten some chickens. Then you'd have really seen something."

According to a Gary Clemons, a relative, Cecil died last year in a nursing home in Okeechobee, Florida. "He became very senile, Alzheimer's I assume, during his last years. His body was cremated so he's not buried with other family members at the Clemons plot in Ortona." We hope his ashes were solemnly sprinkled over a nearby gator pond.

Gary recalls: "He was a notorious gator poacher and recognized as being one of the best gator hunters around. He was one of ten children and his mother was half Seminole. My father was the youngest in the clan and Cecil was next to him. Cecil was interviewed by Hugh Downs, who considered it one of his most memorable interviews...I saw Downs say this on the Tonight Show and show a small part of the interview."

2005: Today, Cecil is long gone, but the attraction continues as Gatorama Wildlife Park. 1,500 lb. Goliath has lost an eye, two feet of his tail are missing, and in his cage hang skulls of alligators he's bested in combat.

Gatorama

Address:
6180 US Hwy 27, Palmdale, FL
Directions:
I-75 exit 141. East on Hwy 80 (Palm Beach Blvd) 24 miles to La Belle, then north on Bridge St. for a mile, then east on Hwy 29 for 13 miles. South on US 27 about 1.5 miles.
Hours:
Daily 10-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
863-675-0623
Admission:
Adults $15.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
Purple Heart Memorial, Okeechobee, FL - 36 mi.

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August 19, 2019

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