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Posted by W von Papinešu on May 04, 2003 at 07:18:09:
ST PETERSBURG TIMES (Florida) 04 May 03 Survival of the fittest - Florida's old-time tourist attractions must adapt to a new century or be swallowed up by development. (Mark Albright)
Orlando: Gatorland is always looking for new ways to celebrate Florida's favorite reptile. And increase revenues.
The latest: For $10, your kid can be a "rookie wrestler." He gets dropped onto the back of a 7-foot alligator. Don't worry, Mom; the gator's mouth is taped shut. For $10 more they'll snap a picture and even print it on a T-shirt for another few bucks.
"We create smiles, fun and special memories here," said Mark McHugh, chief executive of Florida biggest family-owned park, where attendance has been flat for three years. Besides, the rookie wrestler attraction added $300,000 a year to the park's revenues.
Florida's lingering tourist slump has done a number on the big theme parks. But business has been even rougher at smaller attractions. JungleLand, a zoo with 300 animals in Kissimmee, ended a 30-year run in November. Mark Martin's Klassix Auto Museum in Daytona Beach auctioned its Corvette collection and closed last week. Even Cypress Gardens, a 67-year-old mainstay of Florida tourism, abruptly called it quits on April 12 after a long struggle.
The remaining small park owners have to cope with a changed world where insurance costs are skyrocketing and fears of terrorism keep families closer to home. Meanwhile, developers often entice owners to cash out for nice profits. Until they give up, owners have learned to cope by focusing on a simple business plan passed down through the generations.
"Never try to outspend Disney. Know your niche and never try to be something you aren't," said David Tetzlaff, who took over Caribbean Gardens in Naples from his parents four years ago. "Always add something new. Don't ever borrow money because if an improvement doesn't work, you're saddled with a loan."
The formula continues to work for Godwin family-owned Gatorland, now run by a marine biologist who once trained Shamu and the other killer whales at Sea World.
Raising Gatorland's $19.95 admission, typically discounted as low as $12, wasn't an option. But managers found an expanded selection of tourist gifts such as gator slinkies, jockey shorts and plush toys sold a lot faster than porcelain and crystal gators that gathered dust on the shelves. Charging $1 a head for a train ride inside the park generated about $350,000 a year, a nice bump for the park's $10-million annual revenues.
Another issue for small parks is how to keep shows from getting stale.
For instance, Gatorland is improving its trademark Jumparoo, a feeding frenzy where about two dozen alligators and crocodiles leap and crawl over each other to chomp on chickens dangled over their heads.
A wood ramp is being installed to bring the feeding frenzy closer to the crowd. Plus they'll pick a volunteer to use a pole to feed the leaping beasts. The park plans other minor tweaks, but no one will touch the hokey concrete Gator Mouth entrance that's a familiar sight in family photo albums, post card collections and National Lampoon's Summer Vacation.
"We're proud to be kitschy, corny and politically incorrect here," said Diane McHugh, whose grandfather opened the place in 1947. "What kills me is one of the first questions guests ask is: "Are your animals real?' You bet."
Teaching the gators to jump
Rattlesnake Hammock native Owen Godwin, a former butcher, learned the hard way that tourists love crocodiles and alligators more than they like snakes.
His Snake Village and Alligator Farm, built with just $300 on U.S. 441 near Kissimmee, wasn't doing well. Many cars sped up at the sight of his signs. Mom lingered in the parking lot, while Dad and the kids visited the snake exhibit. Price wasn't an issue; the suggested donation was a dime.
So Godwin bought Bone Crusher, a 15-foot, 1,080-pound crocodile. Bone Crusher was touted as the biggest croc in captivity, and Godwin promoted a $1,000 prize to anyone who could prove otherwise. Nobody did. By 1954, Godwin's Florida Wildlife Institute was renamed Gatorland, the "Alligator Capital of the World."
"There was a lot of P.T. Barnum in Owen," recalled Tim Williams, the so-called dean of gator wrestlers, who trains the reptile handlers. "When the tourists didn't come south, he drove north to New York and Pennsylvania to see them."
Godwin built a trailer equipped with a fan, heater and bathtub big enough to hold a 12-foot gator named Cannibal Jake. He charged a dime a look.
Over time Gatorland grew to 110 acres, dozens of other species, three daily gator shows, a petting zoo and a snack bar. The specialties of the house: fried gator nuggets and smoked gator ribs.
The Jumparoo is a typical Gatorland stunt. Godwin's son Frank thought the park needed another hook. He wanted to copy the dolphin trainers who dangle a fish over the water.
Crocs jump out of the water naturally, but gators have to be trained to do it. So Frank's son, Michael, hung chickens over the water at varied heights. Soon he taught 50 gators six verbal and visual cues to pull off the show. Until then, Gatorland fed its gators fish packed in 50-pound blocks.
"We got the chickens from Winn-Dixie because hanging a catfish or a bloody piece of raw meat out there looked gross," said Michael Godwin, who went on to a career as an IBM software engineer. "Everybody can relate to chicken."
He performed the Jumparoo for 365 consecutive days. His biggest scare was a crocodile named Blondie. The croc snapped a chicken from his gloved hand, then rose with enough force to nose Godwin's arm out of the way.
"I must have been insane," he said. "I may have looked fearless, but I never lost my respect for what a gator can do."
Indeed, trainer Williams, who has been bitten "25 to 30 times" in a 30-year career, compares the sensation to having your hand slammed in a door that has 82 nails sticking out at various angles.
After many years of growth, Gatorland's fortunes began to decline in the mid-1990s as the aging management pondered retirement and deferred maintenance took a toll.
McHugh, an MBA and marine scientist, stepped in in 1996 for his retiring in-laws.
"I had to apply just like anybody else," he said. "They assured me I was family, but I would be fired if it didn't work."
McHugh shut down the gator farm that butchered gators for their hides and meat. Once alligators came off the endangered species list, supply exceeded demand. The park's pioneering artificial insemination program, developed in concert with the University of Florida, lost its purpose. Gatorland was stockpiling hides rather than selling them for purses and shoes. McHugh also shrank the gator population to 1,000, down from 5,000.
Gatorland also had to deal with one big challenge that faces all businesses: the skyrocketing cost of insurance.
"Our safety record is as good as any zoo or amusement park, so our liability insurance is not the problem," he said. "Our employee health insurance premium skyrocketed 38 percent this year. We're facing a 50 to 75 percent increase in workers comp."
And fears of terrorism, post Sept. 11, have hurt the park's attendance as international tourism slumped. Since the 2001 attacks, attendance has been flat at 400,000 a year.
To improve revenues, McHugh gave the park a facelift. The concrete animal cages and rusted tin roofs are disappearing in lushly landscaped habitats, so the place looks more like a nature experience than an old gator farm. He added folksy signs such as "Trespassers will be eaten," plugged in a children's water spray fountain and encouraged employees to volunteer animal facts, rather than wait for questions.
Gatorland also solicited corporate events, which offer late-night tours of the gator breeding area. When the crowd flicks on their flashlights, they see 500 pairs of glowing red gator eyes.
Gatorland also got into the airboat tour business and set up shop in a nearby Bass Pro Shop as an outfitter for guided fishing, hunting and nature trips.
However, the Jumparoo remains a marketing staple of Gatorland ads, brochures and billboards. The park generates free publicity selling itself as a place for TV and movie crews to film gators. Reptilian scenes for Cat People, Jackass, Lake Placid and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were filmed there.
The park rarely says no to a film crew. When Gator Bowl broadcast producers wanted to film a gator running for a touchdown, Williams glued a football on the plated back of a gator. "They insisted on having him walk a straight line for 10 seconds," said Williams. "I was amazed the gator did 9.8 seconds on the first try, but they weren't satisfied. After 26 takes, we never got one over five seconds."
A boardwalk through a 10-acre captive breeding swamp provided an unplanned bonus for wildlife lovers. About 2,000 mating pairs of ibis, egret and heron nest at eye level by the boardwalk.
"Most of the gator and wading bird film you see on the BBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Travel Channel were shot here," Williams said. "Wildlife photographers can hike a couple of miles through the muck in a swamp, but most shoot here where a bathroom is 100 feet away."
For many attractions, offers to buy their land can be hard to ignore. "A lot of people think you get rich owning these attractions," said Elaine Fraser, general manager of Ripley's Believe or Not Museum in St. Augustine. Her family owns the Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth and the Oldest Wooden School House. "But it's land rich, not cash rich."
The old roadside attraction families expected their kids to work at them, but seldom groomed offspring to take over. "We were encouraged to leave and see the world," said Diane McHugh, of Gatorland.
"You can't force children to think this will be their future, only make them appreciate what you have," said Fraser, whose tour guide experience began at age 6. "Personally, I hope my nieces and nephews decide to carry on the tradition preserving these historic places."