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As far back as the 1890s, travelers passing through Florida paid a few cents to see an alligator kept in an outhouse. Back then, the state's unique ecology and warm weather proved enough to attract tourists in droves. Midcentury visitors pulled over at family-owned roadside attractions such as Floridaland (with its porpoise shows and Western-style shootouts), Frog City, the Aquarium, Gatorama, and Ocean World, to name just a few.
But beginning in the 1970s, many of those Florida-centric roadside temptations, with their kitschy, bold-colored signs and even more colorful characters, had disappeared. Disney's Magic Kingdom and its phantasmal offspring replaced the wonders of nature with roller coasters and air conditioning, and roadsides disappeared faster than a Mickey's Premium Ice Cream Bar in the middle of July.
"Disney really hurt the mom and pops that were off the interstate highways," said Dr. Gary Mormino, historian and author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "In the old days, people would dawdle—they would come down 441 or 301—they'd stop at the alligator farms. Now, you fly into Orlando and drive on the interstate."
But a handful of these roadsides survived, albeit in modern forms, and some tourists are seeking the nostalgia of retro entertainment or the "authentic" experiences of ecotourism. And even now, alligators can still draw a pretty big crowd.
On a weekend this past February, as snowstorms raged up north, I drove to south Florida's Everglades Holiday Park and stepped onto a worn-in airboat. As we meandered down man-made channels, the boat's captain gestured to the surrounding wildlife, describing monogamous birds with names like swamphens, and I started to doze off—it's peaceful out on the water in middle-of-nowhere Florida.
But then an alligator suddenly surfaced near the boat, and I jolted forward. A tourist next to me quickly positioned his iPhone close to Bubbette, the five-foot-long alligator who was now just a few feet away. Bubbette, it turns out, used to be called Bubba, the captain told us, until someone witnessed her being "very affectionate" with a ten-foot-long male gator. Cameras clicked furiously, filling rolls of film and memory cards with more shots of the gator. Then the engines revved, and we were off again, the boat's combined 750 horsepower vibrating our bones.
"Today we're looking at our smartphone or our iPad, and it's one-dimensional," said Clint Bridges, the 41-year-old, second-generation owner of Everglades Holiday Park. "But you can't experience something without the wind in your face."
This particular park, where guests pay $29.50 for an airboat ride and gator show, opened just as the mom-and-pop era faded. Bridges lived nearby as a kid, in a house his father built of spare parts from construction jobs, but the family mortgaged it in 1982 in order to take over the park's 29-acre lease. Bridges says he practically grew up on an airboat and learned to wrestle an alligator before he could even ride a bike. When he was old enough, he helped his "street smart" father's business find its current footing in ecotourism, which focuses on the state's natural elements.
Ecotourism harks back to an emphasis on nature, and it capitalizes on what Mormino calls tourism's current "terror revolution." "It's almost like we're ADD with tourism," said Mormino. "It's not enough to just go to the Everglades; you need something in another dimension."
This past year, more than 300,000 guests rode one of the Everglades Holiday Park's airboats. "For us, the ecotourism," Bridges said, "helps people come to love the Everglades, and then fewer bad things can happen to it."
A group of nine cadets from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy were visiting the park as well, choosing to spend one of three port days there. They told me they thought it'd be "pretty wild" to go out in the Everglades, and a trip farther south to Miami would have been "an expensive Uber ride." Dean Cross, another tourist I met on my trip, an Arizona retiree in his 70s, was on his first visit to Florida and had the Everglades on the top of his list. "Anytime you're going any place, you get on the computer," Cross said, "and anything on the computer about south Florida was about the Everglades."
On land, my fellow ecotourists and I sat on bleachers to watch some more old-school Florida tourism and perhaps, for some, the main attraction: alligator wrestling.
Sixteen gators were nestled around and on top of one another in a small pool. Paul Bedard, the owner of the Gator Boys Alligator Rescue (part of Everglades Holiday Park) and star of Animal Planet's Gator Boys, grabbed one by the tail and addressed the crowd.
Bedard is one of the few committed no-kill trappers in the state, finding homes for alligators and even featuring some of them in his routine at the park. "There are no headlocks and body slams," he told the crowd. "Alligator wrestling is the old Seminole Indian capture techniques mimicked in a pit with a few stunts."
In Florida, it's a felony to kill or injure an alligator unless authorized by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. For 20 years, American alligators had been on the endangered species list, mainly because people hunted and sold them. However, the population stabilized in the late 80s, and today, the commission estimates there are 1.3 million alligators in the state (which, for context, has about 20 million people).
As we watched Bedard hold a gator's mouth open with his chin—the "Florida Smile"—across town Billy Walker, a muscular man with cropped black hair, wrestled his own alligator during the weekend's Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow Wow at the Hard Rock Live.
In the mid-19th century, the US had forced the Seminoles and Miccosukee into the Everglades, which were thought to be uninhabitable, where they formed reservations. They adapted to the land and hunted alligators to eat, and today, the reservations have become a tourist attraction in their own right. I left Everglades Holiday Park to meet Walker in the early evening, and he explained that alligator wrestling started with his "people—the Seminole-Miccosukee." Walker began wrestling alligators by accident in the 80s, when as a young boy he'd waded into the water to catch one for food. While walking home with the knocked-out gator slung over his shoulders, his sister dared him to show the visiting tourists some tricks, and they began "throwing money" at him.
Walker still catches alligators and uses them in traditional shows at the Big Cypress Reservation. He feels that gator wrestling is a way to preserve the traditions of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Lazy airboat rides and the history of the Everglades feel a world away from Orlando's fancy roller coasters and perfectly costumed performers, but they're separated by only a few hours' drive on the turnpike, and they're connected by water. A lot of people call the Everglades a swamp, but it's really a slow-moving river of grass. Its headwaters begin in southern Orlando, a region once known for cattle and citrus, now a top tourist destination. About 66 million people visited Orlando in 2015 alone. This past year, the state's most tagged place on Instagram was the Magic Kingdom, followed by South Beach, then Epcot.
"It's hard to fathom that 60 years ago Orlando was a modest crossroads city in central Florida," said Mormino, the historian. "Now, the region has tens of thousands of hotel rooms and fast-food franchises everywhere, because that's what tourists want."
The 110-acre Gatorland sits smack dab in all of this congestion.
In 1949, naturalist Owen Godwin opened the park, and its iconic gator-mouth sculpture remains a bastion of Florida's roadside attractions, but Gatorland has survived, in part, because of its proximity to Disney's theme parks.
To keep up with the ever-evolving attractions of its neighbors, like Disney World and Universal Studios, Gatorland built a massive and nationally ranked zip line that takes guests directly over its alligator pits.
"People aren't coming to Orlando to see Gatorland and happen to stop by Disney," said Tim Williams, the "dean" of gator wrestling at Gatorland. "Thank God we have Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld in our backyard. They've helped us and been great big brothers and sisters." (Outside of parks, the native alligators existence in the area hasn't been entirely harmonious, unfortunately. Nature bumped up against fantasy last year, when a wild alligator snatched a two-year-old boy from a shoreline of a Disney resort.) "It was a tragedy," said Williams.
Though Gatorland plays more to the theme-park crowd than the ecotourism one, it has developed shows to help educate its guests on the reality of these animals. It houses around 1,800 gators, looking like a scene ripped straight from an Indiana Jones flick. But not everyone's a fan. PETA once described Gatorland as a "notoriously cruel area alligator park."
To see so many alligators in captivity can be surreal. The day I visited Gatorland, an audience member asked her friend if the gators are animatronic. They aren't. After the show, I—and a bunch of kids—posed for a picture on a gator's back. Having felt its rough scales and slow breath, I can attest they are very, very real.
As guests milled about Gatorland's gift shop, a 39-year-old tourist named Shaun Grant stopped and peered into a small tank of baby alligators. He pressed his hand to the glass and smiled. He had flown to Florida for his birthday. "Can I pay to feed one of these?" he asked the cashier. "I came all the way from Wisconsin just to hold an alligator."
As Florida's landscape continues to change, so too does its relationship with independent tourism. For now, at least, you can still see the "mermaids" at Weeki Wachee Springs, go on a safari at Miami's Monkey Jungle, or dig for fossils at Gatorama. Many of the great roadsides may one day be memories, but against all odds, pieces of this world still exist.