Florida has become notorious for theme parks and thrills. We all know the biggies; Disney, Universal, Sea World, Busch Gardens, etc.
But long before Walt Disney invented Orlando in 1971, there were a few other delightfully retro attractions that are still standing! I had visited Weeki Wachee once before about two years ago, but somehow hadn’t made it to Gatorland even though it’s in my hometown! When my friend, Chelsea, was visiting from out of town, I found the perfect excuse to visit both! Of course, we made it to Disney a bit too!
As you can tell from the outside of the building, Gatorland has been operating in Kissimmee, FL just outside of Orlando since 1949. It’s location makes it a perfect side trip for a Disney or Universal vacation. It’s quite a bit cheaper than the other theme-park alternatives too at $26.00/adult and $18.99/child (half price for FL residents and anyone stopping in after 3pm!). Parking is free too! Something you don’t really appreciate until you try to visit Universal City Walk.
(Photo by chelsea_wels)
Gatorland has managed to maintain it’s retro charm even as the area has grown around it. They also take a humorous no-nonsense approach to safety…of their animals!
This is fair though, coming from an area of the country where it’s not uncommon to watch redneck taunt zoo animals, I say fair play to the gator.
Gatorland is a wildlife and adventure park. As you might imagine, the “wildlife” portion of this is primarily reptilian, which is fine until you get to the snakes. I just really hate snakes. Obviously, my personal bias shapes my opinion of this. If watching slithering soulless monsters is you’re thing, then I’m sure they are great.
The alligators are obviously the star attraction, and they come in every shape, size, and color.
These gators are pretty cool, but no one is as bad ass as these fearless birds!
It’s not all reptiles. There is also a mostly flamingo lagoon, featuring one brave grey bird that doesn’t know his friends are more attractive than him.
We could all learn a thing or two from these drab fearless birds!
The “adventure” part of the park is a ropes course and zip line that it was too rainy to use the day we were there. I still feel like I got my money’s worth out of the park though… even if the most adventurous thing we did was visit Chelsea’s very first swamp. My family is from Louisiana so I’m a swamp monster from way back.
Here’s a fun fact I learned about alligators. Rain really turns gators on, and when gators are turned on, they let out a horrifying, ground-shaking, guttural growl. Sometimes this happens when you’re stuck on a pier that juts over the pool of the hugest scariest alligators by yourselves in a torrential downpour and you’re just certain they’re going to start busting through the floor boards and no one will even know or care that you’re gone until one of the alligators throws up a human hand a week later.
Okay that didn’t happen, but it totally could have. I didn’t get eaten, and I would definitely go back, even if parts of it scared me a lot.
Like I said, I had visited Weeki Wachee once before, but it’s just too weird not to share with my friends. Where else can you see realish live mermaids? I mean, some places, but not a lot. Words cannot express the wonder that is Weeki Wachee.
Weeki Wachee is a natural spring and state park. The mermaid shows predate Gatorland by a few years, having started in 1947. Weeki Wachee is still a very small town, but these shows drew quite a crowd in the 50s and 60s and the park was eventually purchased by the American Broadcasting Company.
The park is seemingly unchanged since the 50s, even the narration of the shows seems the same. There is an oddly patriotic show called “Fish Tails” that introduces the mermaids, and shows the audience a few tricks they can do with the aid of their breathing tubes. Here you can watch mermaids do things like drink a Coke underwater, or dive directly down into the spring.
Best of all, the shows all take place in the natural spring, which stays 74 degrees F all year. This means it is always full of wildlife. While we were there a turtle was hamming it up and stealing this mermaid’s thunder.
There is also a version of what they bill as “Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid”, but is in actuality, pretty similar to “Walt Disney’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid”. Not musically similar enough to be considered plagiarism (but close), but thematically very similar… compete with a sea creature calypso band!
You didn’t hear it from me though. Those mermaids are on top of their PR! They also shamelessly google themselves.
(Photo Credit chelsea_wels)
Even though the mermaid got a little sassy with my friend, I still really like it there.
You can tell it’s been open for a long time, even the animals are show men. The peacocks were real show offs.
It’s important to remember though, even show biz peacocks are large living dinosaurs. Perhaps approaching it with your child for a selfie is ill-advised.
And as with just about every tourist attraction, my favorite part is the photo ops.
This machine is so amazing it gets it’s own heading. Mold-A-Matic is a machine I just found out about, but was apparently very popular in the 60s and there are a few still around. The machine allows you to “make your own souvenir” by pumping molten plastic into a mold then dispensing it. It’s a lovely machine that harkens back to a simpler time when you could say “hot, hold by bottom” and not expect to get sued by parents of burn victims. These machines also have quite the cult following… which I am now a part of. I know that they exist in both Gatorland and Weeki Wachee, and it’s now my goal to track them down in all corners of the world! Some even go for quite a pretty penny on ebay!
30 thoughts on “Vintage Florida; Gatorland and Weeki Wachee Springs”
I’ve been to Gatorland–it was probably 35 years ago! Awesome!
Tami recently posted…Looking Up in Zion National Park
This was the first time I’ve been to gatorland, but I can’t imagine it’s changed much in the last 35 years! But that just adds to it’s charm.
Love your sense of humor! I chuckled at your post! Looks like a quirky place!
Natalie, The Educational Tourist
Thank you so much! They really are some bizarre and funny places.
Mold a Matics are amazing, I can’t believe that was your first experience… D23 pulls out some of the old disney ones for conventions, it may be worth a second trip!
Nothing is worth D23!
You gals are hysterical! Loved the story and must might need to visit Gatorland myself. Cheers!
Sue Reddel recently posted…Last Minute Gifts For Dad
Thanks so much! Glad you liked it! I put off going to Gaterland for years, but I’m sure glad I finally did.
So many beautiful beasts under one roof. Flamingos are just so dainty! We are heading to Orlando (my first time) in January so it’s something to add to The List!
Gemma Two Scots Abroad recently posted…You’re so Van… || Vancouver Tips
There’s so much to see here, not just the obvious theme parks (those are great too though). Let me know if you need any tips for your trip!
Took kids to Gatorland many, many years ago. First time time really see alligators up close. They loved it.
It is really cool to see them up close. It’s the closest you can get to a real life Jurassic Park.
I have never been to any of these places, to be honest! But it’s good to know that such things exist! Xx
Trisha Velarmino recently posted…Best Restaurants in Moscow, Russia
I lived near them for so long and never went! It is nice to get a taste of local history and what attractions were like before Disney got here.
We lived in southern Florida for about 4 years, but somehow never made it to Gatorland when we were there even though we were in Orlando quite often. I’ll have to check it out on our next visit–it sounds interesting–thanks for sharing! We did get to Weeki Wachee though, my husband wasn’t much of a fan, but I thought it was fun. Yay for Mermaids! 🙂
Jenna recently posted…Conveyor Belt Sushi in Japan
You have to see the humor in it, it’s certainly not the best/most exciting attraction, but I love it for the quirkiness and history.
I’ll pass on the gators but I would like to see realish-live mermaids! How funny that these have been trundling along for more than half a century. Love the mermaid photo op, by the way.
Wandering Carol recently posted…Hidden gems bigger than a breadbox on the Coastal Passage Route
It’s really such a fun place to visit! It feels like traveling back in time.
What quirky places! They look like fun. I love the signs at Gatorland. It’s always good to remind us humans of our place in the food chain!
Jackie recently posted…Travel Hacking With Almost No Credit Cards
That’s really easy to remember near the large gator and crocodile pool!
I love it, especially the albino gator! I have family in Orlando and we visit a lot but haven’t visited Gatorland yet. We’re going back in January but I think at my daughter’s age the alligators will scare the crap out of her. Best to wait another year or two to take her there!
Christa recently posted…Fat Girls Climb Mountains Too
Good idea, I’m 29 and the alligators sorta scared the crap out of me!
If you’re looking for more molds, they have mold-a-matics at the Miami Seaquarium. 🙂
Vicky and Buddy recently posted…Malta: Europe’s Top Off The Radar Destination
excellent news! I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for the tip!
How funny, I never knew this place existed! Too bad, it could have been a fun visit! That’s kinda funny that the mermaid commented on your friend’s instagram like that, I guess they have pretty good wifi under the sea 😉
Francesca @onegrloneworld recently posted…Why I Will Never Be A “Bucket-List” Traveler
Yeah, we’ve been laughing about it. It really is a unique and bizarre place to go. I finally made it there for the first time after living an hour away for about 8 years, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t make it on vacation.
Love watching the birds hang around the alligators. I once watched an alligator try and knock a heron off balance to steal his fish. It was like watching a comedy. The bird kept its fish.
Jennifer @ Made all the Difference Travel Blog recently posted…August ClubW Wine Box
haha. That’s great. Those birds are bold!
Gatorland looks pretty good and I think I would find the mermaid show a bit weird! Maybe it would be different in person. The wildlife in Florida is incredible. I loved visiting. Mold-o-matic is quirky and fun. Looks like you had a great time exploring
Kate recently posted…The Farne Islands, Northumberland
The mermaid show is nothing if not weird! That’s part of it’s charm.