So you’re vacationing in Central Florida, and you’ve seen the big parks already. You’ve got one day left on your trip: What are you going to do?

Small tourist attractions fight hard for that “last-day dollar.” Many regional attractions around Florida have closed over time, but Gatorland has operated in Central Florida for almost 70 years.

Entrance to Gatorland, 196-

Gatorland was founded in 1949 by Owen Godwin, a colorful character known for his habit of dressing in full safari gear. He saw an opportunity for a wildlife-based, Old Florida roadside attraction, so he and his family established Gatorland along the Orange Blossom Trail (US 441). The property they purchased even had ready-made pits, perfect for alligators! Alligator pits, also called alligator holes, retain water during the dry season and attract prey for the alligator.

Owen Godwin wrangling a python


Alligator at Gatorland, 19–

Godwin’s over-the-top approach to marketing was well suited for the new attraction. He visited the northern states each summer to woo new customers, complete with his live alligator, Cannibal Jake, in tow. Meanwhile, visitors to Gatorland could walk above alligator pits on elevated boardwalks and observe other Florida wildlife, all for free!

Sightseers on footbridge, 1979

Gatorland’s donation-based business model was never particularly effective, but the park got by when it was just one of many roadside attractions in Central Florida. However, two things changed in the 1970s. First, Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike, which began operating in the 1960s, bypassed Gatorland. Consequently, the Godwins had to find a way to draw tourists to the park. Second, once Disney World and other mega-parks arrived on the scene, they provided entertainment to tourists over multiple days rather than just for a few hours.

Tourists on train, 1979

How did Gatorland respond? By charging admission, of course! While this did lead to a drop in attendance for a while, it got them membership in the Florida Attractions Association (FAA) and thus listed in the FAA brochures found at every hotel.

Gatorland brochure, ca. 1971

In addition to more aggressive advertising, new CEO Frank Godwin (son of Owen) added attractions such as alligator wrestling and “Gator Jumparoo,” where gators jumped out of the water and snatched store-bought chicken from a trainer’s hands. Gatorland even became a major alligator farming and husbandry operation over the years.

“Gator Jumparoo,” 19–

Alligator wrestling, 19–

Responding to Florida’s tourism boom in the 1970s, Gatorland successfully made the transition over time from a family-owned roadside attraction to a small theme park run as a major corporation. You can find the park’s full history in Dorothy Mays’ 2009 article in the Florida Historical Quarterly, “Gatorland: Survival of the Fittest among Florida’s Mid-Tier Tourist Attractions.” If you’re ever in the Orlando area, it’s worth a visit!

Do you have memories of visiting Gatorland? Tell us about it in the comments below.

An International Attraction

It takes about 18 hours and 7,600 miles to fly from Orlando to Beijing. That’s a long haul for most Floridians, but did you know that for ten short years you could go to China without leaving Florida?

Park in Shenzhen, China after which Splendid China in Florida was modeled (2011). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Park in Shenzhen, China after which Splendid China in Florida was modeled (2011). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Splendid China Florida was a tourist attraction in Citrus Ridge, located just southwest of Orlando near the meeting point of Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Polk counties. The park offered a miniaturized Forbidden City, dances, traditional acrobatics, and other demonstrations of Chinese culture. It was modeled after a park of the same name in Shenzhen, China, across the border from Hong Kong. The owners hoped to promote Chinese culture overseas and tourism to China itself.

Acrobats from Splendid China performing at the Florida Folk Festival (1999).

Acrobats from Splendid China performing at the Florida Folk Festival (1999).

Dragon dance performance at Splendid China theme park (1998).

Dragon dance performance at Splendid China theme park (1998).

Unfortunately, the park never took off. It could not compete with the bigger, flashier theme parks drawing tourists from around the world. The owners tried several strategies to capture a portion of Central Florida’s vast tourist market, but the effort ultimately failed.

After a decade of lackluster attendance, the attraction finally closed its doors in 2003. The structures and gardens remained standing for another ten years, although over time they began to take on the appearance of a Chinese ghost town in the middle of Florida. Skateboarders and thrill-seekers became the closed park’s most frequent visitors, along with photographers looking to document its unusual landscape. A quick Internet search will turn up hundreds of photographs of the crumbling Splendid China park, all poignant reminders of the life cycle experienced by so many of Florida’s tourist attractions over the years.

To learn more about the rise and fall of Splendid China, check out Wenxian Zhang’s 2006 article on the subject in the Florida Historical Quarterly. Also have a look at the State Library’s Tourism in Florida resource guide, which lists related books, journal articles, and digital collections.