The floodwaters have receded, the layers of mud scrubbed away and repairs have begun at Gatorland, which is preparing to reopen Saturday for the first time since Hurricane Ian blew across Florida last month.
The entire Orlando attraction was under 18-24 inches of water after Ian, said Mark McHugh, president and CEO of Gatorland, which opened in 1949. The park, operating on South Orange Blossom Trail, had not flooded since the late 1960s, he said.
Founder Owen Godwin built a berm around the park that separates swamp land from Gatorland, he said.
“As the park has grown, we’ve kind of expanded it and moved it out a little bit. But that berm is what’s protected the company for 50-something years from the rains,” said McHugh, who took over in 1996.
“I’ve probably been through 10 or 12 hurricanes. We’ve never even gotten close to flooding, even over the banks of the lakes,” he said.
Ian and its rainfall proved to be too much, compromising the berm and allowing water to cover the attraction. It submerged all the wooden walkways near the entrance and crept up the trademark open-jaws structure outside.
It didn’t top the fenced exhibit areas for Gatorland’s animals, so they were unable to explore new territories in the storm’s aftermath, McHugh said. “We didn’t lose any of our animals,” he said. (There are also 8-feet-high fences around the edge of the property keeping the gators at home, he said.)
Seven Gatorland employees stayed on property the night Ian arrived, braced for wind damages. At 6 a.m. they alerted McHugh about the surprising amount of flooding.
“The nerve-wracking thing about it is … all day, the water just keeps rising,” he said.
Later, Gatorland workers were able to wade and canoe through the park to check on things. Days later, the water level went down to the point that more folks could help with cleanup. They pressure-washed decks and raked up debris.
“Our employees have pulled together and locked arms and got this park back on its feet and cleaned it up,” McHugh said.
That includes workers focused on preparations for Gatorland’s Gators, Ghosts and Goblins, Halloween festivities that also begin Saturday. Much of the event’s décor already was in place when the storm hit, including Swamp Ghost’s Monster Museum, which highlights classic characters such as Dracula and werewolves and real people such as “Frankenstein” novelist Mary Shelley.
“I was terrified,” said Dan Carro, Gatorland’s creative director, who said work on the Halloween attraction was finished the day before the hurricane reached land. At the time, they were more concerned about wind damage, he said.
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“Everything was screwed down in case guests bumped into it or whatnot. So nothing really pulled away except a couple of bones,” Carro said.
Outside companies are working on drywall and other structural aspects of the repair. There will be some adjustments to the operation, such as relocating where zip-line customers check in.
“We’re really just focusing right now on primary aspects of the park for guest service, and getting those open so that we can handle the people and then we’ll start fixing up the other things in the park,” McHugh said. “We’re still months away” from complete recovery, he said.
He doesn’t expect the Ian-related setbacks to be as damaging as the first year of the pandemic or the fire that destroyed Gatorland buildings, including its famed gift shop, in 2006.
“With the flood, everything is still here. We’ve just got to clean it up. With a fire, it’s gone. Everything was gone — that entire front building and its contents — gone. So we had to rebuild the building,” McHugh said.
“We’re hopeful that once we get the doors open here that business jumps back to where it has been — at a pretty good level.”
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