Gatorama hatched new ideas after Irma, is hiring

After Hurricane Irma blew through the region last fall, its impacts at Gatorama forced the wildlife park on U.S. 27 in Glades County to shut down for nearly two months. But the original Old Florida roadside attraction has bounced back nicely for its 61st year in business, to the point where Gatorama is in hiring mode as summer 2018 begins.

Gatorama ‘Mama’ Patty Register is very happy with the new walkway they built to bridge the lagoon, where their breeding-age alligators dwell on the left side and crocodiles on the right. They separate the two populations with an underwater fence, but one obstinate female crocodile has refused to be captured and moved into Croc Pond. At the end of the walkway is a transfer port they built into the bridge so they no longer have to move the beasts from one side to the other by going through the parking lot. This bridge has fabric panels overhead that can easily and quickly be removed for storm preparations when necessary; the old one’s aluminum roof had made it a wind catcher, which toppled the bridge during Irma.

Through their popular Facebook page, owners Allen and Patty Register are advertising openings for a handyman/woman, additional help in the park’s gift shop and even qualified zookeepers or zoo attendants. They’ve done substantial rebuilding after the storm caused both flood and wind damage in key areas. Despite Irma’s ripple effects still being felt, attendance is growing and all of Gatorama’s popular wildlife shows, experiences and events are back — and then some.

Gatorama’s 60th year in business, 2017, was eventful mostly because of the disastrous strike of Irma Sept. 10-11, which caused severe flooding in the region and inside the park as well. Irma’s winds wrecked the long wooden bridge over the lagoons that connects the main entrance, business offices and gift shop area with the wildlife display enclosures and show areas in the interior.

Kevin the white peacock shows off his mating-season finery.

Several of those structures also were damaged, to the point where the owners needed to do some fundraising so repairs could be made. Some rebuilding and new construction still were underway as the summer began. Their old snack stand is being remade into a pub-style gathering place called The Back Porch, which will offer beer and wine along with food to guests and will have a walk-up window and picnic area out front where patrons can have lunch and drinks without paying the admission fee.

Last year also was momentous for owners Patty and Allen Register because they had just hired a new curator before the hurricane hit. Greg Graziani brought a little star power on board and had plans to help bring the park into a new era; a few have been delayed because of the hurricane. Mr. Graziani found fame a few years back with National Geographic’s TV show “Python Hunter,” and operates a captive reptile and snake breeding facility in Venus that is known for his wide collection of color and pattern mutations in the animals. Gatorama “Mama” Patty Register said that the park received donations and gifts from fans all over the country; however, the amount they were able to raise was a fraction of what they have ended up spending to fix things.

Petey the green-winged macaw.

“We had no idea of how much being closed would cost us. I mean, we knew we were going to have that (damage repair), but the cost of rebuilding was astronomical. We are so thankful for the people that did help us, and I plan to have a little path and a spot to recognize those people. We did end up getting an SBA (Small Business Administration) disaster loan, but that took three months to do,” she said.

One of the biggest projects was to restore their lagoon area, the first thing guests see after meeting the resident chatterbox, Petey the Macaw. Even he is getting new digs, as state regulators ordered the park to make him a larger enclosure so he can’t so easily take a chunk out of overeager young visitors’ fingers.

Mark Gawlik of Lake Wales holds a baby albino alligator during his visit to Gatorama.

Mrs. Register said they had to rebuild all of the banks surrounding the lagoon because they’d washed away from Irma’s flooding and subsequent erosion. She said they haven’t been able to mow in recent weeks due to all the recent rain, “but we have changed the lagoon. We only had Croc Island way out there; now, we’ve resculpted the pond … (and) this provides for more show experiences, plus it provides a little nook back there for breeding, for the crocodiles, because that’s still a number one priority is to create this American croc stud book.” That’s one of Mr. Graziani’s many projects.

“We were under water for seven weeks,” said Mrs. Register. “Fisheating Creek went to 12 feet, which is just 500 feet behind us, and it broke through our berm that we have built around the property. So now, we’ve built a series of islands for shows and they work really well, but with the water so high at this time, you can’t see them.” She said their hope one day is to have a land bridge. “I think that would be exciting for people,” she said.

Mark Gawlik of Lake Wales waits to hold a juvenile albino alligator held by Gatorama staffer Claire on Saturday, May 19. Denise DeCourcey from Ketchikan, Alaska, had brought Mark along for a visit with another of her grandsons, Aiden Brown of Gainesville, Ga., who was celebrating his 10th birthday.

As it is, they rebuilt the fence under the bridge that separate gators from crocs.

Gatorama had about 20 big gators and crocs to move that were displaced by the hurricane, and they had to pump down the lagoon for the annual Bull Gator Round Up in January so they could get the animals even if they’d burrowed down into the mud. Wranglers came from all over the state by invitation only. Regular admission price got spectators in to see that event from the safety of the newly rebuilt walkway bridge.

“These teams work together to get these beasts back in the right place before breeding season,” Ms. Register said.

Gatorama staff member Shannon (left) returns a juvenile to the water in the Uncle Waders pond after she wrapped its jaws to prevent biting while she and Claire were preparing for the day’s visitors.

The park is all about letting people interact safely with their animals, so they’ve started having a few new “experiences” for guests. Now available is “gator barebacking” where visitors can enter a special new enclosure and “ride” a menacing 6- or 8-foot alligator that was trapped as a nuisance animal. She explained that it’s a pool area where they hold those alligators until they’re either sold or donated to another facility.

“We don’t kill them; we bring them back here and, depending on their size, we either put them in the breeding area as new bloodlines, or we put them in this barebacking opportunity for a little bit,” she explained. Two handlers are with a guest at all times while he or she is in the enclosure. The alligators are not leashed; “their mouths are wrapped, so they can’t bite, but they could roll. But our staff is trained; if he starts to roll or whatever, we’re going to evacuate the guest.” There’s also a photo-op area, a whole new part. There’s Uncle Waders, which is not new. And they have a new African tortoise exhibit.

One new Gatorama exhibit is of African spurred tortoises. Of the 13 they have, said Curator Greg Graziani, two are albino. A Cayman Island ground iguana (not shown) keeps the turtles company inside this enclosure.

Their usual two shows a day, at 11:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., varies in content depending on the season, the weather and other factors. But the daily feedings off the bridge always draw a crowd of visitors.

Mrs. Register said they’re excited to have brought on a new full-time keeper as of June 1, a retiring art teacher from Sarasota who has a lot of experience with reptiles and other animals. “We’re going to be embarking on a new mural project, in all of the pools and the walkways,” she added, and the murals will reflect the habitats their animals came from.

They also have a “gator pull” experience that is being refined for guests. Mr. Register is a nuisance-gator trapper for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a job he’s been doing for about seven years, and she said people always get very interested when he tells stories about that and brag that they, too, could do that. Now, they can have a chance to match their strength against that of a full-sized adult alligator; part of the fun is to see if they’ll still be bragging after trying to drag one to shore. Then there are the gargantuan land tortoises.

Crocodile eggs are kept in bins lined with peat moss inside the reptilian incubator at Gatorama.

“We’re doing so many more field trips and summer camps,” Mrs. Register added. “Educators say there’s a big buzz about us right now because we changed our group experiences. What we do with them, the land tortoises, is we’ve upped the game. So this is an encounter that we do; with a keeper, we allow the kids to come in one or two at a time and they get to feed them greens, like kale or romaine or whatever, plus have some time talking to the keeper about them.”

One other new Gatorama feature is the American Alligator Color Mutation Exhibit, which has the most color variants of any facility in America. There visitors can see albino (white) alligators, melanistic (solid black) alligators, hypomelanistic (black and gold) specimens and piebald alligators, which have a normal pattern with white patches.

Other long-range plans include a walk-in aviary; an “American Ninja”-style obstacle course for kids, for which the park is seeking bidders to buildt it; and a “Can you outrace the alligator?” experience that they’re training animals for presently.

Leading up to their Hatching Festival that takes place for the three weeks preceding Labor Day (Aug. 18 through Sept. 3), Gatorama looks for capable volunteers to assist with the crowds that come for that popular attraction. Gatorama, located at 6180 N. U.S. 27 in Palmdale, is open rain or shine, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

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