Is the Gatorland zipline the most exciting zipline in the world? What is a Social Distancing Skunk Ape? And who’s the most famous person to ever feed a turkey hotdog to an alligator? To find out the answers to these questions (and more), we spoke to Brandon Fisher, a 20-year veteran at Gatorland and the current Director of Media Relations/Productions at this paradise for gators and other wildlife.
Meet your insider
Please tell us about your role at Gatorland – what do you do?
I am the Director of Media Relations/Productions, so I handle all film crews that wanna film here at Gatorland, VIPs, celebrity tours, and so on – and then I’m also basically a park ambassador for Gatorland. I do all kinds of talks on alligator education and safety – I’m always at the local news stations talking about gators and how to safely be around them. Here in Florida we’ve got a lot of them, so we’ve gotta be careful around ‘em!
How long have you been working at Gatorland?
I actually first started working at Gatorland in 2004, two weeks after I graduated high school. I was just looking for a summer job and somebody told me that Gatorland was hiring so I came and applied, beat six people out, and the rest is history. I auditioned for a position in entertainment – our entertainment department are the guys who do the shows here at Gatorland, and take care of a majority of the gators and crocodiles and some other animals here at the park – and that’s how I started!
Around four years ago, I became one of the park directors. It’s been almost 20 years working with gators and crocodiles, so a lot of hands-on experience, a lot of fun, and a lot of knowledge over those 20 years… and still going strong!
What do you enjoy the most about working at Gatorland?
So I’ve thought about this question for a little while! What I enjoy thoroughly here is being able to teach the public, see our guests’ faces light up – kids and adults – when they get to have a cool experience here in the park; whether that’s us letting them feed the alligators, touch them, or experience the other animals up close and personal… that joy that we see on a daily basis working closely with our guests and interacting with them is really what keeps me here.
All around it’s just a great place to work – we’re a small company with not too many employees like the big parks around us, and we’re like a work family. We always have a good time. We always think we’re funnier than what we are!
Have you had many VIPs/celebrities visit Gatorland?
Oh yeah! Over the years we’ve had all kinds of people. One of the more famous ones… this person absolutely loves Gatorland. His favorite thing to do when he visits (other than bringing 40-50 people with him) is to sit here and toss turkey dogs to the gators. I kid you not, we still keep boxes of turkey dogs just in case he comes to visit. That person is Shaquille O’Neal!
Ever since he was drafted into the NBA to the Orlando Magic, he’s loved Gatorland. A gentleman here named Mike Hileman has Shaq’s number on his phone – anytime Shaq wants to come, he calls up Mike and says “Hey, I’m stopping by.” Shaq’s filmed some different things for some different projects here over the years. At least once a year he makes it down here to visit just as a regular guest, to have a good time. He’s a great person, awesome and very down to earth.
Other than him, we get a lot of sports players, especially NFL players. Almost everybody has been friendly and cool, and hasn’t wanted anything too crazy. If they want something special they usually call ahead of time – we’ve had Saudi royalty come in and visit, and different VIPs like that. Every person is a little different!
Actually, when we built the zipline, we had a special harness specifically built for Shaq to try to get him on there… but Shaq didn’t want to do it!
All about Gatorland
Please tell us the story of Gatorland. How did this gigantic paradise for gators, crocodiles, and other animals come into existence?
So, basically, Florida was a place that not a lot of people really wanted to visit back in the day. People didn’t really know too much about it, and thought it was like uncharted territory; nothing but swamps and dangerous stuff all around, including the alligators.
Gatorland was, and still is, a family business to this day. A gentleman named Owen Godwin decided to start Gatorland back in the 1940s. Owen was an avid outdoorsman back in the day and he had a hamburger/hotdog stand, kind of like a mini butcher shop, here in Florida. In the back, he had essentially a mud pit with a couple of alligators that he kept as pets that people could see if they came and got a burger or hotdog. The more he thought about it and talked with his wife, Pearl, the more they wanted to open up their own small little family zoo.
So, they bought 16 acres of swampland – situated right between two swamps – and opened Gatorland. Well, when it first opened, it wasn’t actually called Gatorland. They actually started with the name Florida Fish & Wildlife Institute. Mind you, this is 22 years BD – Before Disney!
Not a lot of people came to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Institute. It sounded like the kind of place that’s really boring – it’s an institute, a place you send your crazy uncle if he’s getting out of hand – so they changed the name to Snake Village, as they had a lot of snakes on display. But the trend was that the men and the boys would come to the park, but the women and the daughters wouldn’t! So that’s when Owen’s wife Pearl said “Hey, you got a bunch of gators, you got a bunch of land, let’s call it Gatorland.” Gatorland opened in 1949, and we’re celebrating 72 years this year, 73 coming up.
We’ve been through hurricanes, we’ve been through a fire that burned down our gift shop, we’ve been through covid now, so nothing’s gonna deter us – we’ll keep going strong!
That’s a very long history! How has Gatorland changed over the years?
Back in the day, Owen used to travel around the East Coast with a big, 14-foot alligator named Cannibal Jake and some other wildlife. He’d travel to show people these animals, charging a nickel or a dime to see what Florida’s all about, and with that money he purchased more land here.
Today we sit on 110 acres of land, which in fact is 10 more acres than Disney’s Magic Kingdom. But we haven’t used it all! We have 30-40 acres in the back that’s undeveloped, so there’s still room to grow. Whether we do or don’t, who knows – people love that real Florida feel that Gatorland has.
We do expand different things – in 2011 we put in the Screamin’ Gator Zipline because we saw the need for more adventurous stuff, and people were wanting that. In 2018 we put in our Stompin’ Gator Offroad Adventure, our swamp buggy ride. There’s a lot of fun stuff to do, so we’re not necessarily a ‘zoo’ – we’re kind of a small zoo/adventure park/small theme park, so a little bit of everything.
Gatorland has almost exclusively five-star reviews on Tiqets. The only negative review is actually one person who left a two-star review saying she had a great time there with her kids… either she pressed the wrong button or just has extremely high standards. What is it that makes Gatorland so loved?
That two-star person, next time they come, the gators aren’t gonna be too happy! But having that many reviews and that many stars is pretty amazing. One of our striving goals for employees is this: we want our guests to leave with fun smiles and special memories. That is mentioned almost daily by our guests and employees – we really do everything in our power to give people the utmost fun time and always offer a helping hand to our guests if they need it, you know?
You mentioned it briefly earlier: Gatorland has an amazing zipline. What makes the Gatorland Zipline different from others?
So the Screamin’ Gator Zipline here at Gatorland was actually voted in the top 10 in the United States! The zipline opened in 2011 because we saw a need for it: people were wanting adventure. We did extensive research on putting in a zipline, and worked with a great crew from Montana that helped in the design process of the zipline. We went and visited a bunch of other ziplines and rope courses around the US to get an idea of what we wanted.
The Screamin’ Gator Zipline has a total of 7 towers. Up to 12 people can be in one timeslot, and there are multiple timeslots throughout the day. You’ll go with two guides: a guide who hooks you up and sends you on your way, and a guide that will catch you at the next tower.
It’s a total of 5 zips, plus a 150-foot swinging bridge you’ve gotta walk across. You go over alligators and crocodiles from Tower Two to Tower Five, and then Tower Six to Tower Seven is two lines – so you get to race with the other people in your group at the end!
Between Tower Five and Tower Six is that swinging bridge I mentioned. Tower Four is the tallest tower at 70 feet high up in the air. Between Tower Four and Tower Five is the longest part of the zip: you go 520 feet right across the Green Marsh that has about 150 alligators sitting in it. At one point you can probably have 50-60 gators sitting below you waiting for you to drop – which never happens, by the way!
Amazing! What are the requirements to go on the Gatorland Zipline?
There’s extensive training for the zipline guides and a really high standard that we have to meet for our gear and training, so we have never had anybody fall in! On our harnesses we have 10 things that have to go wrong before you fall in – so you actually have one more life than the average cat.
Our minimum height requirement is 36 inches tall to safely fit in the harness, so even kids can do it, as long as they meet the height requirement. Our weight limit is 270/275 pounds, which is just the weight restriction on the harness itself. You’ve got to wear closed toe shoes, no dresses or skirts, and we have a photographer who takes photos during the experience so you can purchase those at the end if you’d like to. It takes around 1-1.5 hours to get through the whole thing – like I said, 7 towers in total!
In order to do the zipline, you should book ahead of time to make sure you can get a reservation spot, especially during our peak seasons. It can sell out very quickly. The price for the zipline includes your admission to Gatorland for the day. It’s also possible to buy on the spot if there are any slots available and you didn’t book in advance.
What if someone is too scared to do the full Gatorland Zipline experience? Asking for a friend.
If you’re too scared to do the full thing, back in 2016 we built our Gator Gauntlet Zipline – Tower Eight to Tower Nine. It’s one single line that runs over the Green Marsh. It’s a little bit lower to the water, but the gators can’t jump up and get you! The cool thing about this one is that it’s the only handicap-accessible zipline here in the Eastern United States. So folks with disabilities who want to do something fun with their family – that maybe they were told they could never do – get a chance to do it here. We have a special harness for folks in a wheelchair, or folks who have a disability where they can’t use their legs.
We have to ask… have you tried the zipline? When the doors close for the day, do you guys just zipline around for the evening?
So I’ve done the zipline a whole bunch! If you come and experience the zipline you have to watch a safety video before you go up – and I’m actually on that safety video! I play a character here at Gatorland called Bubba; we have two characters here, Bubba and Cooter, that we use for some of our commercials and stuff. Bubba and Cooter are in that video – we’re looking to update it because of course times have changed a little since 2011.
When we built the zipline, before we opened it to the public, we had a few days where our employees and their close friends and family got to experience the zipline. A lot of our employees today will get the chance to do the Gatorland zipline experience for themselves! It’s a lot of fun; it’s definitely something to experience if you’ve never ziplined before. The cool thing is that it’s like a guided tour – our guides will lead you and interact with you and tell you about some of the animals you’re seeing around you.
As well as incredibly cool ziplines, Gatorland also does lots of interesting conservation work. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Gatorland has always been at the forefront for alligator education and safety. Being known as the alligator capital of the world, we produce gators, our gators breed with each other and we get babies every year. We loan or sell to other zoos and facilities throughout the US so that they have alligators. We have a conservation arm called Gatorland Global, with the message of helping ‘nuisance alligators’ that we have here in Florida.
Basically once you hand-feed a wild alligator they associate food with humans and they come closer – and that’s when you hear stories about dogs being eaten, kitty cats going missing, people being bit by a gator, and more. At the end of the day it’s an instinct for gators to defend themselves – and they unfortunately just get used to people too quickly!
We work with state-licensed trappers in the area who get called out to problem alligators – ultimately if it’s a nuisance, the animal has to be euthanized and disposed of. So we wanna try to save it and bring it here because, heck, Gatorland is like living in luxury for a gator. It’s the best place in the world to live if you’re an alligator.
We also work with groups in Cuba, Jamaica, Australia, and India, and we’re working to give them the necessary resources they need to help with some crocodilian species. We do research and natural collecting of those species to put them back into the wild and raise them up, because some of their numbers are pretty endangered – especially the Cuban crocodile.
Meet the animals at Gatorland
Tell us about the gators and crocs! What are they like? Do they have different personalities?
Alligators and crocodiles definitely do have their own personalities!. Some are more calm than others, some are crazy; some love their tails scratched, their bellies scratched, some love their noses scratched, and so on. The folks that work closely with them, myself included, we learn those behaviours, we learn those personalities and like to highlight them in the best way possible.
These alligators are like animal ambassadors for the park. Throughout the park we have different signs for some of our top alligator and crocodile stars from Youtube and Facebook – we have signs with QR codes that you can scan to learn more about those specific animals.
We have to ask this very unfair question. Who’s your favorite gator?
My favorite alligator in the park is our largest alligator. His name is Buddy, and he’s 13 feet, 8 inches and 1200 pounds. He lives in our breeding marsh, and he’s just been the king of that place. Even though he is the king and he fights a lot of the other male alligators to keep them out of his territory, he’s got this gentle side to him. That’s kinda like me; I’m a big guy but I have this gentle side to me! I just love working with him.
A close second is one of our nuisance gators that we got through Gatorland Global: Turnpike. He was caught off a road here in Florida called the turnpike, and he came to us with a missing foot. He must have got it bitten off in a fight many moons ago. For whatever reason, Turnpike has it out for me. He just wants to eat me. And I absolutely love that – it’s fun, we have a good time.
We have a few others that are really close, but Buddy is by far my all-time favorite.
What other animals can you see at Gatorland?
Besides gators and crocodiles, we’ve got all kinds of other animals. We’ve got Florida panthers, bobcats, an African serval cat, birds like budgies, macaws, parrots and cockatoos, snake varieties, lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, a petting zoo with goats and miniature cows, we have deer, skunks… did I mention gators and crocodiles? We’ve got a bunch of different stuff to see, and it’s not just gators and crocodiles that you can get up close and personal with. We do all kinds of different encounters, including a great one with big tortoises.
You also have an extremely rare animal: the world’s only known Social Distancing Skunk Ape.
Yep! I wouldn’t call him an animal to his face; he might go a little crazy. Definitely don’t call him Chewbacca either, he doesn’t like that. But our social distancing skunk ape is a cryptid; a folklore tale here in Florida. Everyone knows Bigfoot or Sasquatch – the skunk ape is Florida’s version of that, Bigfoot’s southern cousin. A little bit smaller than Bigfoot, with reddish-cinnamon brownish fur. The skunk ape decided to make his home here at Gatorland many years ago. We had some guests in our park call while they were inside and SWEAR that they had just seen Bigfoot in our park!
One day he just popped up and he seemed to be real friendly, so Bubba and Cooter took him under their wing. They loved the skunk ape and wanted to befriend him. We’ve just gone with it, and when Covid happened, it just so happened that the skunk ape’s arm length is exactly 6 feet from fingertip to fingertip – so we decided to give him the title of Social Distancing Skunk Ape. He makes his appearances every so often – these days he’s being a bit more elusive again, but he’s planning some big things…
Tips for visiting Gatorland
What tips would you have for first-time visitors?
We open at 10:00 in the morning. Of course the earlier you get there, the better it’ll probably be. It depends on the time of year. The busiest season is the week after Christmas, Spring Break for kids, March-April time gets super busy, and then we’re packed from Memorial Day to Labor Day in summertime. It does get busy during those times, but we’re not as busy as something like Disney where you’re waiting in three-hour-long lines.
If you’re choosing to do the zipline, I’d highly recommend you book ahead of time and get a reservation. It DOES sell out! Our off-road adventure is on a first-come first-served basis here at the park; there’s no online booking ahead of time and you purchase it once you get here. It fills up fast! So, like I said, the earlier you get here, the better. We close at 17:00 every day.
Typically you can see everything in about 5 to 6 hours; it used to be around 4 to 4.5 hours before we added the zipline and the buggy ride. Some people spend a couple hours, some people spend the whole day, some spend multiple days. There are also shows throughout the day, including our oldest one – the Jumparoo show! You get alligators to jump up, which is a natural behavior for them, so they can eat raw chicken. People thoroughly enjoy that one.
It’s nice to walk around at your leisure and take your time to experience the park. It’s not every day that you get to see a gator or crocodile or any of the other animals!
You can also buy Gator Chow prior to coming. What is Gator Chow and how/when do you use it? Can we just throw it at any gator that we like?
So way back in the day we used to sell fish to guests to be able to feed the alligators. Then we changed over to turkey dogs, which is a bit healthier for the gators than just a beef hotdog. But being an outdoor park, we have a lot of other wild wildlife here – wading birds like egrets and herons, raccoons, possums, snakes… the birds really loved these turkey hotdogs and we had way too many negative encounters with these wild birds and our guests – birds love to try to steal food!
So we moved to what we call Gator Chow – it’s a pellet that’s designed for gators and crocodiles by a company that designs diets specifically for zoo animals. It basically looks like a big dog biscuit, and you can get them at the Gator Chow stand. You can walk around the park and feed the gators at your leisure! They float in the water, which is really cool. You aim for the side of the face and they’ll go for it. It’s a good supplement in their diet, so it’s very good for the gators and replicates the wild nutrition that they would get.
Behind the scenes/insider tips
How has Gatorland fared during Covid-19? We saw something on YouTube about an emotional support alligator?
Nobody ever expected any of this to happen! I’m glad that things are starting to look a bit better worldwide. When it all happened, we shut down completely for around two months and only had essential personnel working here. What makes this company so great is that it’s family owned and operated. Our CEO – Mark McHugh – is a fantastic boss, and the company decided to continue to pay our employees even if they were sitting at home – which is awesome, and it helped everyone get through that hard time. Mind you, there was a little bit deducted, but we still got paid – and all those employees came back to work full-time. We only lost 2-3 employees during and after that time. We opened up on Memorial Day weekend of 2020, and things were slow. Our local community really got us through those hard times.
When we shut down, we started doing a Facebook Live show called School of Croc every day with some of our main animals here at Gatorland. We had an international audience of folks with kids tuning into School of Croc every day and writing in – the love and support from them was absolutely amazing and also helped us get through that downtime.
We are definitely ready for things to get a little bit easier and for international travel to come back! We can’t wait for everybody worldwide to come back and visit.
We have to mention Pearl’s Good Eats and how good the food at Gatorland looks. Have you tried everything on the menu and what would you recommend?
Over the years, I have personally tried every little thing on the menu at some point!
Right now on our menu one of our best things is the Chester Dog. It’s actually named after one of our famous gators, Chester, who is known as The Dog Eater. Twenty years ago, he was in a Tampa Bay neighborhood and some kids were feeding him, so he got used to people – so he went after 7 dogs in the neighborhood and he got a hold of 4. A German shepherd, a boxer, a labrador, and another one.
He’s a 13.5-foot alligator that weighs around 1,000 pounds – so he’s big! Thankfully he’s not eating any dogs today – the only dogs he ate here at Gatorland were those turkey dogs – so we named the Chester Dogs after him. It’s a footlong hotdog with chili and macaroni and cheese on top of it. It’s a pretty popular item, tasty, and will fill you up!
For the more adventurous types, we do sell alligator nuggets on our menu. It’s none of our alligators! We get it shipped in from a farm and it’s already been processed, in the same way that people raise cattle and things like that. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, gators were endangered because of poaching – so people got together and recognized the need to conserve and protect these animals. Farming gators actually took the money away from the poachers because it flooded the market, so poaching dwindled down. Gators are now protected here in Florida!
Basically the gator nuggets are the meat that comes from the tail, and they deep-fry it like a chicken nugget. Everyone says it tastes like chicken; I personally think it’s somewhere between a nice white fish and chicken in terms of texture and taste. I like it – I mean, I work with gators every day, but I’ll still eat ‘em! If you’re here in Florida, in the Southern United States, you’ve gotta try them.
Finally, do you have a favorite story about your time at Gatorland?
There are many! But part of the reason that led us to opening up the handicap-accessible zipline was a family from the UK. They visited us a few times on holiday and loved coming to Gatorland. The husband and wife had three boys, and one of the boys was in a wheelchair. They had visited and he would come in and would not be able to do some of the coolest things. We are accessible, but some things you just can’t do – like get up close and personal to feed gators in a wheelchair.
He was told a lot of times that he couldn’t do things like that with his family – so we decided to open up the Gator Gauntlet Zipline that’s handicap-accessible. When we opened it up, we personally invited them here as a big surprise. Our CEO Mark developed this relationship with the family and we presented the zipline to him, I believe his name was Josh. We brought him in and told him “Hey, you’re gonna be able to do this with your family.”
The excitement and the look in his eyes of finally being able to do something he’d been told he couldn’t do – the tears of joy were just overwhelming. Unfortunately not too long after that, he passed away. We decided to plant a tree in his honor that’s here at Gatorland. Just having that relationship with some of our guests over the years has led to some of my favorite stories here at Gatorland. That specific one hits home.
Looking for more things to do in and around Orlando? Check out this blog post for inspiration, or try any of the fun activities below.