Did you ever go to Universal or Disney’s Magic Kingdom expecting to see live animals? Of course not. But there’s another smaller theme park here that might be a surprise. That’s because of the unexpected wildlife.
Would you go to a park called Gatorland to see the birds? Yes, for real.
Because the real stars here are not really the alligators.
They’re the birds. And they’re a very little-known attraction.
Whether or not you are a fan
So you’re not really a bird-watcher?
Maybe you are and don’t know it. Birds are so popular and common place in Florida that it’s no wonder tourists are commonly known not as visitors but “snowbirds.”
It does seem like a strange hobby for a few dedicated diehards.
Young People Among Biggest Fans
But there are 46 million people in the US who consider themselves bird watchers. The numbers are growing, particularly for younger people. And Florida is a central attraction.
By some counts, the state has 500 species of birds, 125 of them native to the Sunshine State.
It might surprise you, but birding is second only to beach-related activities as a form of outdoor recreation for both visitors and residents here.
The Gatorland rookery, which covers 10 acres and includes a winding boardwalk, was established in 1991. That was when Gatorland attraction dug the pond and began to breed alligators there. Over the years, more egrets, herons, wood storks, cormorants, anhingas and other birds flocked to it during breeding season.
No Binoculars Needed
You may already be familiar with the common mockingbird (a year-round Florida resident, and the state bird not only here but in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas). You not only see him/her frequently here but also hear them since they sing all night long. But you can also see the common and familiar white-colored egrets, the great blue herons, wood storks and sand kill cranes. All kinds of hundreds of wading birds easily found here with the naked eye (no binoculars needed).
You perhaps wonder why they are here at a theme park instead of out in the wild?
Birds Figure it Out
“The birds figured out that the gators act like a security system,” said alligator wrestler Adam Hall, Gatorland’s resident bird expert. The roughly 150 gators in the pond keep out raccoons, snakes and other predators that might otherwise devour the eggs and chicks. As a result, there are now hundreds of birds nesting there.
“They have learned to endure shrieking kids and snapping photographers in exchange for the safety the rookery provides — boisterous humans apparently trump ravenous snakes,” said the Washington Post in a recent story.
“It’s like the Galapagos, as far as being able to get really close to the birds and their nests,” said Larry Rosen, president of the Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society. And the Post newspaper account adds:
“And except for some savvy nature photographers, the rookery, which flourishes from February to early June, is still largely unknown, even by most visitors to the popular park, which features about 1,400 alligators in addition to many other attractions.”
The only other spot in the nation where birders can get reliably close to such a dense concentration of mating and nesting birds is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. That’s about an hour and a half drive from Orlando. This is a smaller rookery and visitors say the birds here are not as chummy (often climbing aboard alligators) as they are in Orlando.
Where Else to Find Birds
One other place nearby to find great concentrations of birds: In Titusville, about 50 miles away, at the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, the largest event of its kind in January when birds flock to the area.
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
Hours: Gatorland is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Admission: Day passes for adults $26.99, children $18.99. A $10 upgrade buys an Early Access pass Thursdays-Sundays or a Late Access pass on Saturdays. (Season-long and combination photo packages are also available.
Save a few dollars, we got discount Gatorland tickets.