Preserving Florida’s Natural History by Looking Toward the Future
Owen Godwin Sr. was raised on the Kissimmee River in the early 1900s, spending much of his time on his uncle’s homestead, Rattlesnake Hammock. As the years went on, his fascination for the land that raised him grew, along with a few other traits that would prove vital for his future venture.
In 1949, Godwin founded the Florida Wildlife Institute on a plot of land off U.S. Highway 17-92 and 441 in Kissimmee, with the hopes of giving visitors an up-close look at native alligators, snakes and birds, along with an understanding of how the creatures live. Since then, that venture has grown into a world-famous 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve known as Gatorland. It has been working to protect and conserve Florida’s unique ecosystem, all while engaging and educating people from around the world. In the process, Gatorland has helped both natives and tourists understand the beauty of the state of Florida — and its scalier inhabitants.
Gatorland has also fine-tuned the art of how to tell its story. “Owen loved telling stories,” said Mark McHugh, who has served as president and CEO of Gatorland since 1996. “He had a huge personality. And he was an entrepreneur at heart, always coming up with new ideas to make a buck and keep him busy.”
As tourism exploded into Central Florida’s most fruitful industry, Gatorland grew strong alongside it — standing out by blending so well into the land that inspired it. Along with the adoption of the current name in 1954, the attraction expanded to take in zebras, wild cats, crocodile, birds and tortoises. It added an observation tower, food stands, live shows, exhibits, and a 2,000-foot Swamp Walk through the wetlands. It developed a breeding marsh where adult alligators and other species could thrive.
In more recent years, it has added modern adventures. One of its zipline experiences has been voted the best in the United States by AOL Travel. Its off-road rides aboard 12-foot-high, custom-made monster vehicles take visitors through a section of the park that has never been open to the public, running alongside swamps that feed the headwaters of the Everglades.
Throughout all of these enhancements, Gatorland has kept Godwin’s love of the “Real Florida” story in mind.
“Real Florida is what we present with our animals,” McHugh said. “We have a big, beautiful swamp, a pasture, breeding land for the herons, egrets, turtles and alligators. But it’s also the culture of our business: real down-home Florida hospitality. We keep that roadside kitschiness. Even our zipline and swamp buggy ride, they are distinctly backwoodsy, outdoors experiences. When you’re in Gatorland, you know you’re in Florida.”
A New Way to Tell the Story
In the early days of the Florida Wildlife Institute, spreading the word was the product of, quite literally, putting in the legwork. For Godwin, this meant traveling with his star attraction at the time. In the 1950s, he packed up Cannibal Jake — a 15-foot, 1,080-pound alligator who had been a crowd-pleaser back at home — and traveled to the Carolinas and the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey.
At a dime per view, the profits would sustain the park, and audience members would take the news to their friends. While the park grew through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, billboards and print advertisements became the name of the marketing game.
But while Godwin’s venture continued to find success, it found conveying its many facets difficult. Gatorland was about so much more than alligators. It was a wildlife refuge, a theme park, a roadside attraction and a conservation center.
“People get here expecting to spend an hour or two, and they wind up spending the whole day,” McHugh described of a common guest experience. “It can be difficult to communicate everything that we have, but once people come here, they walk out with a day full of precious memories.”
Luckily for Gatorland, and for visitors who might otherwise miss it, the past decade has been one of upheaval in the world of marketing messaging. The rise of social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has allowed the attraction to reach the world with a multifaceted view of the park. Gatorland used to rely on visitors to drive by its eye-catching and iconic 14-foot-tall alligator head at the entrance in the heart of the tourist district. Today, visitors can preview what’s inside right on their cell phones.
Even with new technology, the park has stayed true to its roots and has remained a family-owned business. McHugh remembers his initial encounter with the company — and with one of its inhabitants — on his first date with his wife, the granddaughter of Owen Godwin.
“She wanted to take me to her family’s theme park,” McHugh recalled. She led him to the back of the park, where some of the two-to-three-foot alligators were housed in tanks. “She had grown up with them, so she just opened the lid and reached right in and snatched one out. And the whole time, it was wrestling and kicking, and she kind of smiled and laughed. Then she put it back in the tank, closed the lid and said, ‘Your turn.’”
A Voice for the Future
Today, Gatorland is leveraging new strategies to reach other organizations that share its goals. Recently, the company established Gatorland Global, a dedicated funding program for conservation efforts. Those efforts include working with local trappers to rescue alligators that would otherwise be euthanized, as well as with conservation researchers nationally and internationally to rebuild and maintain populations of crocodilian species in other parts of the world, including Cuba, Jamaica and India.
At home, Gatorland continues its efforts to educate, now with the power of digital platforms in its arsenal. Whether walking through the marsh, or seeing it through the screen, connecting with nature is often still as simple as letting the animals speak for themselves.
“Once they see them, they get close to them, they can touch them and feed them, they start loving the animals,” McHugh said. “That connection alone is a step toward continuing conservation.”