How Gatorland’s CEO kept reptiles, employees happy during coronavirus closure

Mark McHugh says nearly 200 employees were paid through the pandemic

Even when Gatorland was closed for months, park employees were paid and the reptiles were fed.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Gatorland has been around for 71 years and current CEO Mark McHugh says they have never seen anything like what the coronavirus pandemic.

The popular family attraction, which is still family owned, has suffered major setbacks over the years.

It has weathered hurricanes, tornadoes, recessions and even a fire that burned down its main building some 14 years ago. Still, McHugh says the pandemic has outdone all of those major disasters.

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But a place that houses thousands of live animals can’t just shut its doors and hope for the best. The attraction closed for two and a half months due to the pandemic.

“We’ve got 2,500 crocodiles and alligators at Gatorland so even if you are closed you still have mouths to feed. You don’t want hangry alligators on your hands, they get really grumpy” he joked.

Gatorland plays a role in helping to conserve reptile species.

While nothing could prepare them for the coronavirus, Gatorland was somehow prepared to take care of its 190 employees though it all.

“We were also blessed to be able to continue to pay all 190 of our employees through the pandemic” McHugh said during a recent appearance on the podcast Florida’s Fourth Estate with News 6 anchors Matt Austin and Ginger Gadsden.

“Most of them were at home, sheltering in place, taking care of themselves and their families," McHugh said. "We had a small crew in here taking care of the animals but we were fortunate to be able to pay all of our employees through the entire pandemic and get back open with everybody that we had back in March when we had to close so the park was ready to open up and start welcoming guests back.”

McHugh credits the local love from Florida residents for getting them through past disasters and this one. He said every time there’s a crisis, it’s the locals who save the day.

And now he wants to assure them when they return to the 110-acre park that they will get all that love back by the great care they’ve taken to keep everything pristine. Each day crews clean the entire place and they have put safety protocols in place to make sure guest can have a great time and stay safe.

It’s a lot of work but McHugh says it’s worth it.

McHugh even gave us his impression of another guy who used to run a local zoo and became a household name for all the wrong reasons. When Matt asked him about the Netflix hit “Tiger King” and its star, Joe Exotic, McHugh wasted no time in saying, “Well I’m no Joe Exotic, I’ll tell you that. That cat is crazy!”

Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.

Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem can often be found as guests.

Look for new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Sticher or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Listen to the full episode of Florida’s Fourth Estate on iTunes here or on Sticher here.

About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.