HAVEN Article

HAVEN Article

Gatorama snapping tourists 60-year-old park is a visit to ‘real Florida’

PALMDALE – Longtime Haines City residents Allen and Patty Register have steadily improved Gatorama in their lifetimes. The alligator and crocodile farm two hours south down U.S. 27 in Palmdale, where the gators far outnumber the residents, is not just a pre-Disney attraction you pass on the way to Miami. It’s cool, it’s worth stopping to visit with the Register family. Gatorama offers 15-acres of natural Florida wilderness where reside hundreds of alligators and crocodiles, along with other animals such as wild pigs, lizards, and even a macaw parrot. Guests can watch the gators from a safe distance on the wooden boardwalk. Those who are more adventurous can try their hands at feeding them, jumping into the wa- ter to catch them, or even sit upon them bareback and wrestle them. 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 Disney came along according to Gatorama.com. After 10 years living underwater in a submarine Allen got out of the service, and with his young family, start- ed alligator farming. Patty’s parents, David and Marietta Thielen, purchased Gatorama from the original owner in 1986. Soon after, the Register family moved to Palmdale and starting helping Patty’s parents. Since 1963, this stop along 27 has been attracting tourists both in and out of state, drawing in at least 100 visitors daily, and approximately 50,000 to 60,000 annually. One night back then an American crocodile, blind in its right eye, got loose and ended up in the parking lot. While rounding it up, the croc got spooked and latched on to their daughter Erica’s first car, a red Acura. It grabbed hold of her fender and ripped it, shaking it’s head leaving teeth marks in the bumper. Allen said his daughter drove the car to school her whole senior year in high school with the damage. “She used to think the car wasn’t cool anymore,” Patty said. “The boys all did of course.” Back then the alligator incubator was in a bathtub inside the main house on the farm. Easter egg hunts took on a whole new meaning. Their son Ben and nephew Caleb worked on the farm as well. It was a different place than it is now. Starting out as a place to go see an alligator in Florida without hopping on an airboat, in 1986 David and Marietta Thielen added a commercial alligator farm in tandem with the attraction. Gatorama was still a little rough around the edges and needed a whole lot of work to get it looking just right. One tourist from Massachusetts, Mike Rainsville, had driven to Florida to drop off his two snowbird parents for the winter. Having little less than a day to spend in Florida before returning home, Mike wished to make the most of it by visiting a place that was the “real Florida.” His parents recommended visiting Gatorama, which seemed a good fit for him, as he was curious to see a real Florida alligator. Not only did he have a chance to see such a gator, but he was also able to hold one in his hand. He was most intrigued by the experience, saying that the gator felt almost like a leather bag. “I would recommend it,” he said. “I wanted to see alligators before going back home, (and I) wanted to see some- thing that was totally Florida.” Another out-of-state tourist, Don Johnson from Michigan, learned about the place while driving down the highway.

Normally spending his vacations in Arizona, Johnson was drawn to Florida for its sheer nature, and he wanted to see something truly natural. He, too, also had the privilege to hold a live gator, with the overall experience of the park exceeding his expectations. “I enjoyed it and I learned a lot,” he said. “I would come back.” Aside from celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Gatorama is also celebrating being one of 11 surviving tourist attractions within Florida that opened during the golden era of the 1950s. Nearly 73 such roadside attractions had opened more than 60 years ago, but only 11 of them, including Gatorama, still exist to- day. Much has changed since then, most prominently the construction of the interstate and Disney World, both of which has changed the flow of traffic within the state, especially along 27. As such, Gatorama has survived the past 60 years by adapting to the times. Of course, it also helps that the attraction offers visitors the the opportunity to see Florida’s rugged wilderness and the state’s most famous animal. So after spending a day or two at the beaches or theme parks, tourists, especially international tourists, often seize the opportunity to do a little extra traveling within the state. “We are in the section of the state that we call ‘real Florida’ in the middle of the state, so we have been able to provide an experience for our guests that they cannot get anywhere else,” said Allen Register. Allen was named Alligator Egg Collection Coordinator on Public Wetlands in 1994 and has held the title ever since. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission oversees the colle tion of every alligator egg farmed in the state and every one ends up at Gatorama. Allen is responsible for distributing all of the pre-sold eggs once hatched in the state, a position he has been elected into for years by fellow commercial alligator farmers.

Haines City High School graduates Patty and Allen Register have owned Gatorama down near Lake Okeechobee for a decade but they still consider Polk County home. Allen and Patty purchased the farm in 2006 and started enhancing the entertainment and educational opportunities offered to guests. They had the first Hatching Festival that year. In 2007 the couple rescued the first troubled American Crocodile in the state. Eventually they became the largest captive breeder of Acutus Crocodiles in North America. A fishing pond was added and then in 2013 the walkway around the farm was extended and a larger capacity incubator was placed. A fossil dig was added in 2015. “The last few years improving the attraction has been the focus, less farming,” Allen said. The Registers said they will be having month- ly events starting in January to celebrate their 10th year owning Gatorama and 30 years of the property being in their family history. First up is the 17th Annual Big Bull Gator Roundup happening sometime in January. On the farm slash attraction behind the main house are two areas where the alligators and crocodiles are separated. Every year a select group of experts and trusted friends trap up to two dozen of the reptiles so they don’t min- gle during mating season. This year for a not so steep fee, not so experts can help round up some reptiles. Check the Gatorama.com web site for more information on how to help round up a dozen or so. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

And in an offer to Polk County residents, any- one who attends Gatorama and shows this article can get 25 percent off admission. All a person needs is a driver license or some form of identification. The 2017 schedule has not been set but next up is the Junior Gator Roundup and then in March is the Second Annual Crocodile Egg Hunt. Not so experts can pay a fee and partici- pate in this outdoorsy event as well. Patty said each month in 2017 there will be a special event and to refer to their web site for more specifics. Allen said he sold more than 10,000 pounds of gator meat last year. There were and are still only a few commercial alligator farming licens- es issued in the state. Each year Gatorland har- vests between 1,000-2,000 alligators for meat and hides. Check their web site for price per pound but forget shipping, bring the family down and purchase the meat in the gift shop.

The largest event of the year at Gatorama will be the 10th Annual Hatching Festival. Alligator eggs naturally hatch during August and early September and natural indicators set the date. Gatorama is located at 10665 N. U.S. 27 in Moore Haven, south of Sebring along US. 27. For information, visit gatorama.com, or call 863-675-0623. Allen said he is extending an offer to Polk County residents that they get 25 percent off admission if they mention they saw this story in Haven.

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