The park, which happens to be dubbed the “Alligator Capitol of the World,” saw a monumental amount of water flood into the park, leaving many areas, including its front offices, dockside walkways, gift shop and parking lot, underwater.
During a walkthrough Wednesday morning, Gatorland officials showed News 6 what the park is currently dealing with as it works to recover.
“We’re located between two swamps. So you would expect that our flood risk would be kind of high over the years, but we haven’t had a flood here inside the park since the 1960s,” Gatorland CEO Mark McHugh said. “It was unbelievable -- it was so surreal. I couldn’t believe we were flooding. I’ve been here since 1996, and we’ve been through a dozen or more hurricanes. We’ve never even gotten close to flooding.”
Gatorland closed to guests Sept. 28 as Hurricane Ian barreled into the Southwest Florida coastline as a Category 4 storm. The hurricane inched its way up the state, dumping inches of rainfall and flooding homes in communities across Central Florida. At the time, Gatorland officials had hoped to reopen to guests in the days to follow, but all that changed after flood waters poured into areas of the park.
“We were part of the swamp. It took us out where we were the same level as the swamp. There was about 18 inches or so throughout the park,” McHugh described. “We had a crew of eight people in here that stayed the night through the hurricane. And for the next five days, it was just those eight people in here patrolling the park.”
Before the storm arrived, Gatorland teams helped move many of the vulnerable animals at the park into shelters and the park’s backstage commissary, where teams monitored and cared for them around the clock -- but the alligators and crocodiles rode out the storm just fine in their watery enclosures.
“All of our animals stayed where they were supposed to stay, thank goodness, and even if the water had risen above the animal exhibits, we have an 8-foot fence that surrounds the entire park that never went underwater - never even got close to going underwater,” McHugh pointed out. “The thing that the alligators didn’t like the first few days was they couldn’t find a place to climb out and sun themselves.”
Areas that were once places where Gatorland guests would visit or sit down to eat were now bogged down with inches of water. Some of the park’s famous attractions, including the “Gator Jumparoo Show” and “Screamin’ Gator Zip Line,” were now close to the water’s edge.
The popular family theme park, which is still family owned, has suffered major setbacks over the years. Gatorland has seen its share of hurricanes, tornadoes, recessions, a fire that burned down its main building and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the challenges, Gatorland’s CEO has always taken care of his hard-working employees first.
“Mark has always had it as a priority to take care of employees -- and what that means is keeping the money going to them, even though they’re not working,” said Mike Hileman, Gatorland Park director. “We’re a small family business, and we’re able to do that, and he knows that they need our help, and they’re gonna be here for Gatorland by doing that. It’s a great investment to put into our employees, and he recognized that a long time ago and that he’s just going to follow suit.”
On Wednesday morning, after much of the flood water receded, many of those employees returned to Gatorland for the first time following the storm.
Each of them teamed up to help clean up individual locations of the reptile park. Sidewalks are now being pressure washed, debris is being picked up, enclosures are being scrubbed clean and flood-devastated areas in the park’s gift shop and front offices are being stripped and repaired.
Park leaders are hoping to reopen the park in time for its Halloween event, Gators, Ghosts and Goblins, which begins on Oct. 15. Staff are urging fans and future guests to have patience as they provide updates about the park’s recovery on its YouTube and Instagram channels.
“Every time we’ve gone through a crisis, Orlando, Central Florida residents come pouring into Gatorland. They come in and support us! That is honestly what has saved us every time disaster hits this park,” McHugh concluded.
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