“Family travel” is a term conjuring images of theme parks and children’s museums, in between stops at local ice cream parlors. As a helicopter parent, I’m all for that safe, reliable model of away-from-home entertainment. So I’m still trying to figure out what came over me when we visited Gatorland in Orlando, FL this summer. I brought my two kids into a pen containing a white, ten-foot alligator.
Of course, Gatorland — one of Florida’s oldest attractions – is a wholesome family outing; one which I highly recommend to get off the beaten theme park track. And we could have stayed along the sidewalks to passively view the gator habitats and the “wrestlin’” shows with their campy yet endearing theatrics. But on this day, we met Trezo Je. And I loosened my death grip on the apron strings, more than a little.
Here’s how it happened: I contacted the local tourism office, which I normally do before we travel, to request assistance in planning our visits to the area’s attractions. They’re always willing to help travel writers and bloggers find great adventures, so they arranged for us to meet Tim Williams, the “Dean of Gator Wrestling,” when we arrived at Gatorland.
Tim immediately put all of us at ease with his obvious experience and knowledge about all of Gatorland’s residents, which include all manner of reptilians, as well as birds, zebu, deer, and emus. Before we even left his office, our kids were wearing baby alligators on their heads. And not freaking out.
We were there expressly to see the world’s largest collection of the extremely rare Leucistic alligators. Only 15 are known to exist in the world, and four of them live at Gatorland. They have white skin, but unlike the more common albino alligator, have some color variations, as well as steely blue eyes instead of pink. While albino gators have other genetic mutations and tend not to survive to adulthood, Leucistic gators are strong, healthy… and mean.
Tim brought us to their pens. Trezo Je lives alone, because apparently he doesn’t warm to company. (Get it, warm? Cold-blooded? Still with me?) He and the other white gators were relocated from Louisiana bayous, so his name honors his Cajun Creole “roots.” Trezo Je means “Treasure’s Eye.”
Tim introduced us to the animal trainer who works with these gators, and asked him to bring us in to the small space surrounded by wood and plexiglass walls. The trainer opened the door, Tim waved me in, and I …just…went. No dramatic protests, no time to wish my husband farewell. Then he sent my kids in behind me, and those chickens from my own gene pool followed me blindly.
I’ve never really been in a trance. At my core, I’m a cynic, and hypnotists have no effect on me. But as I sat on a rock, two feet away from Trezo Je, I could stop gazing into his eyes. Matt would tell you I was frozen in fear. Yes, that was probably 60% of it. Another part of it was wonder and incredulity. Why wasn’t he moving from his watery perch? Why didn’t he lunge for The Girl, a meaty morsel who was obviously well-sized for his jaws? I sat between him and the kids (also frozen in place), but I don’t think I would have been able to do much to protect them.
Nor could the trainer, who stood and watched from a five foot distance. As if!
We were only there for a few minutes. But they were long, and memorable. We’re all still chickens. And I’m forever grateful that Trezo Je had been fed well before our visit. Oh, and legend has it if you look into the eyes of a white gator, you’ll receive great fortune. Still waiting on that one…
There’s so much fun to be had at Gatorland, and if you want your own meet-and-greet with the jaws of death, you can go early to the “Gator Wrestlin’ Show.” With a trainer’s assistance, you can sit astride a gator and have your photo taken.
You’ll also find plenty of laughs at the “Gator Jumparoo” show, featuring two bumbling redneck types – Bubba and Cooter –who compete for a job though tests to get the gators to respond to their commands.
The kids continued their fearless streak with an aviary encounter, then settled back into our normal tame routine with a ride on the train.
Because it was raining on and off that day, we skipped the Gator Gully Splash Park water play area. We capped off our visit with lunch at Pearl’s Cafe, and once more nudged those boundaries by sampling gator nuggets, which were quite tasty dipped in barbecue sauce.
You can have Space Mountain. I met a gator!
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, FL 32837