‘All of our animals stayed:’ Gatorland talks recovery after Hurricane Ian

Park hoping to reopen Oct. 15

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.

ORLANDO, Fla. – More than a week following the severe flooding of Hurricane Ian, Gatorland is finally starting to see a little bit more dry land.

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.

[WATCH: Drone video over Gatorland after Hurricane Ian | TRENDING: Become a News 6 Insider]

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.

Minor flooding pictured at Gatorland following impacts of Hurricane Ian. (WKMG)

“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.

Crocodiles sitting in the sunshine at Gatorland Wednesday, October 5. Photo shows water levels still high. Leaders say water levels were below the Gatorland sign pictured above. (WKMG)

“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.”

Gatorland fencing showing debris and how high water levels were following Hurricane Ian. (WKMG)

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.

Screamin’ Gator Zip Line at Gatorland following severe flooding from Hurricane Ian. Part of the attraction pictured is damaged and will be repaired soon. (WKMG)

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.

Gatorland employees cleaning up the park following severe flooding from Hurricane Ian. (WKMG)

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.

Gatorland gift shop repairs following severe flooding from Hurricane Ian. Crews are removing pieces of the wall that were underwater. (WKMG)

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.

Click here to learn more about ways to help Gatorland during this time.

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About the Author:

Landon joined News 6 in 2017. He grew up in Southern Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University with a bachelors degree in TV and digital media. When he is not at work you can catch him at one of Orlando's theme parks or the beach. Before working at News 6 he worked for stations in Miami and Fort Myers.