This is our story, and we're sticking to it ...
The Legend of Cecil Clemons: Let me tell you the story of Gatorama, it was started in 1957 by an old colorful character named Cecil Clemons. Rumor has it that he had 14 wives, chain-smoked and lived in the swamp. Two out of the three might be true and we’ll let you decide which ones. Some people would say he was somewhat of an outlaw. Cecil Clemons stories about Cecil and Gatorama are just too numerous to document but beware – 9 out of 10 “old-timers” around here have some tie to Cecil or the construction of Gatorama. If you walked into the gift shop back in the old days you might find old Cecil sitting in the recliner that use to sit in the middle of the shop so he could watch the girls working the cash register!
When Gatorama began, US 27 was a two lane road. Cecil believed that when most Yankee’s came to Florida they wanted to see three things: the beach, an orange grove and an alligator. He was going to show them alligators!
Cecil was quite the scallywag and Gatorama used to have quite a different reputation than it does now. Since 1987 we have worked very hard to build a reputation as an upright hard working law abiding farm and family attraction. Gatorama is one of 12 remaining of the original 72 attractions operating in the heyday of roadside tourist attractions in the 50s and 60s before the big mouse moved to Florida
Glades County: This part of Glades County use to be referred to as Red Bug Ridge. In the old days the railroad workers would stop here to have lunch..it was a high sandy ridge running through the glades. Alligators were naturally found in this area. Cecil bought the land and fenced the alligators in. The large alligators in the front pond are some of the original stock and the biggest are well over 60 or 70 years old.
The crocodiles were brought into Gatorama in 1968 before they were an endangered species. Crocs natural range is from about Sanibel Island south. They are now mostly found in the Florida Keys. Gatorama has the only productive breeding colony of American Crocs in the US and we are one of the few facilities permitted to accept nuisance crocs from the wild. Nuisance crocs must be relocated….they cannot be harvested the same as nuisance alligators are.
A New Generation: David Thielen, my father, was raised in Lakeport and for a time lived near Cecil. After a career as an army officer he retired and wanted to come back to his childhood home. My Mom Marietta, a Yankee, did not! But she soon relented. At about the same time it became legal to farm alligators in the state of Florida. Our Family are pioneers in the alligator industry. We hold two of the original 30 permits. Dad’s interest was in developing the alligator farm, though he intended to keep his promise to Cecil and keep the attraction open and not sell off the valuable alligator and crocodile stock. By 2007 those original golden thirty permits have been consolidated and are now held by about 10 families’ who farm alligators commercially.
My husband and I moved to the farm in 1989 and began managing it for my parents. Our kids, Benjamin and Erica grew up in the fishbowl we call the farm. They skated and learned to ride a bicycle on the walkways when we were closed. Our Easter egg hunts occurred during croc nesting time and it was always a race to get to the Easter Eggs before the wild animals did. Benjamin came of age during the days he ran the farm as a young man just out of high school while Allen was recovering in an Orlando hospital from a nasty croc bite.
Erica is a schoolteacher and is Gatorama’s education/and field trip coordinator and writes our curriculum for school groups. She and her husband Jason live in Ohio with the apple of our eyes- our grand daughters, Bella and Lily. The girls look forward to spending summers with us and the whole family comes and helps out at the Hatching Festival each year. Our son Benjamin is our head trainer/entertainer and helps out with all the nuisance alligator calls we get for this area. He is married to Christina who works here on the farm with us. My Mom passed on in 1996 and Dad is pursuing his lifetime dream of golfing as many days a week as possible. He lives in LaBelle and visits often. Always a welcome treat!
Allen and Patty Take Over: We finally were able to make a deal with dad and bought the farm and attraction in 2006. After purchasing the “farm” we set about to enhance the entertainment and educational opportunities offered to guests and to begin special events at the park. In 1998 we began offering two shows a day (previously one a week on Sunday at 4:30 had been offered for 42 years) and offered every guest the opportunity to hold a live gator at no extra charge.
In 2004 we began offering Gator Night Shining’s and in 2006 we held our first ever Hatching Festival. We converted to solar heating in 2008. In 2010 we focused on gathering new blood lines for the breeding American Crocs. In 2013 we finished a new loop to extend the walkway and built a larger capacity incubator.