EVERGLADES GATORLAND

A former roadside attraction in the middle of the Everglades

Panoramic shot of what remains of the front of Everglades Gatorland | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

Before the shock of seeing the name of the long-dead town Okeelanta on my map app had completely faded, I was making a sharp U-turn and pulling into the patch of gravel and dirt that had once been the pavement in front of Everglades Gatorland.

Beginning in Miami’s Little Havana and ending at the small town of Havana near the Florida/Georgia border, US-27 cuts through the depths of the swamps and groves that make up Florida. Though it's now barely more than a rural afterthought, this was once the road millions of migrants in search of new opportunities and tourists in search of new sights and thrills would use to travel throughout the state of Florida. Because it was so heavily traveled, US-27 was once the backbone of Florida’s tourism industry and before Disney World reigned supreme, kitschy roadside attractions were the main draw for travelers.

1960's postcard from Everglades Gatorland. Printed on the back of the card is "located on US Highway 27 offers you FREE ADMISSION to see live alligators and many other wild animals that inhabit the Everglades. Visit Florida's most modern gift shop and Snack Bar, on the northeast corner of the Everglades." | Photo © mainmanwalkin on Flickr

Just south of the town of South Bay on US-27 is what remains of Everglades Gatorland, a small roadside zoo and souvenir shop which became known for their live alligators. Originally a gas station run by J.C. Bowen, former mayor of South Bay, and his wife Mary Lou, Everglades Gatorland was inspired by the many tourists who would stop to fuel up and ask where they can see alligators and other native Florida animals. This inspired the couple to open Everglades Gatorland in 1959 with alligators caught in the lake just behind the building. They would eventually expand and acquire exotic animals such as ocelots, coati and a king vulture.

The lake behind Everglades Gatorland where the first alligators of the roadside zoo were caught | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

In the 1960s, alligator poaching had intensified, poachers even making off with three alligators from Gatorland while the night watchman was off duty in 1965. The American Alligator was added to the first endangered species list in 1967 and that same year, Florida was the first in the country to establish new regulations regarding captive animals. These regulations set standards for minimum pen size for each group of animals, sanitation, and animal care requirements and put many roadside zoos out of business when they couldn't adhere. Everglades Gatorland, however, was able to meet the requirements and stay in business.

The establishment remained open and thriving throughout the 70's and 80's but by the 90's, there weren’t any gators left as the time and cost to care for them was no longer worth it. Business declined over the following years but the Bowens continued selling souvenirs to the rare tourist who would pass through before finally closing and surrendering the building to the Everglades from whence it came.

One of the old enclosures for the animals behind Everglades Gatorland | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

The former tourist attraction is now an empty building, roof long since fallen in, but otherwise empty. The only sign of what it once was are the sun-bleached letters on the front of the building advertising "LIVE ALLIGATORS!" This advertisement is likely correct, as there are no doubt countless alligators waiting nearby to make a meal out of anything or anyone that wanders blindly into their swamp.

I could vaguely see some smaller structures and pens out beyond the main building, lining a path that led to the very lake where the original gators of Gatorland had been caught. In the city, OG stands for "original gangster" but out here in the Everglades it means "original gator." The most hardcore of Gators. And they're probably all watching you at any given time from the rapidly encroaching growth that is just waiting to swallow up this place.

Everglades Gatorland shrouded in overgrowth | Photo © 2016 Sugarbomb

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