Posted by: trevormeers | May 17, 2012

Fishin’ For Gators

Odds are, you’ve made the Disney pilgrimage in Orlando, so you think you know the place. But in our first few days here in the Happiest Humid Place On Earth, I’ll go ahead and guess that we’ve notched an experience foreign to your average Mouseketeer. You can’t feed hot dogs to the smilin’ alligators inside Splash Mountain, after all.

I’m far from the first to notice that most of Orlando feels about as real as the plastic pineapples that decorate cheap salad bars. I’ve always thought of it as something like the Good Witch to Las Vegas’ Wicked Witch—a couple of siblings who took different paths. Each, after all, is more or less an entertainment mecca carved from a landscape that only a rattlesnake would love in its natural form.

America’s busiest tourist destination did, after all, once occupy “Mosquito County,” which was later subdivided with a new section dubbed the more elegant Orange County. And today, Orlando is apparently the only known economy driven exclusively by theme parks, T-shirt shops and Outback steakhouses.

But if you look around a bit, you can still find a few traces of the old Florida hanging on down here. So before we launched into several days of mind-blowing, high-tech entertainment, I took Allison and her cousin out on a Sunday evening to find it.

Right down Irlo Bronson Highway, near the 57th Walgreen’s within 7 miles of our rental house, we came to Kissimmee Go Karts. I found it on the Internet when I realized that a nighttime airboat tour to look for alligators wasn’t going to fit our schedule. Most of the online reviews deemed it pretty entertaining. One guy even declared it better than Disney, which left Teri saying, “I bet that’s the guy who griped the whole trip about Disney costing too much.”

On this evening, we had the go-kart track to ourselves, not counting the bored guy who sat in a little tower on the backstretch, lounging like a teenage lifeguard as he made sure we obeyed the “No Bumping” signs. The karts themselves were fun enough, thanks to a curvy track advertised as “Almost a mile long!” I hung out behind Allison for most of the race, sucking down two-stroke engine fumes and little particles of oil that sprayed my way when she gunned it through the curves.

The gator pool, right between the parking lot and the go-kart track.

But the main reason we tracked down Kissimmee Go Karts was for this promise on their website: “Feed our 75 live gators!” Here was the Florida I wanted to rediscover! Who could resist an evening of racing around a concrete track topped off with throwing chow to killer lizards?

I’m a little biased because of fond memories of a trip Teri and I took right after we got married to a little paradise known as Gatorland. This old-school attraction in Orlando is something like Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin’s Australian zoo, if it were run by Irwin’s neer-do-well, rebel-flag-wavin’ cousin.

The main draw at Gatorland is a series of shows, such as gator wrestling, venomous snake handling and a real lulu called the “Gator Jump-a-roo.” The same guy in a crumpled straw cowboy hat stars in every show, running between spots in the park every few minutes, and surely racking up life insurance premiums that would make a bomb-squad member whistle. One minute, he’s rolling in the sand with a 10-foot gator, and the next he’s stuffing rattlers into burlap snakes. But the real fun is the Jump-a-roo, where Tex runs a raw chicken out on a wire above the water and waits for a gator to leap straight up and drag the bird down like Jaws chasing Richard Dreyfuss.

Gatorland was closed when our schedule was open, so I figured feeding giant lizards at a go-kart track would make a fair substitute. I sent Alli into the arcade with $2 to buy “gator food.” She came back with a small Ziploc bag and a frown. “That looks to me like a hot dog cut up in pieces,” I said. “It looks to me,” she said, “like half a hot dog cut into pieces.”

Baitin’ up a bobby pin with a fresh piece of “gator food.”

Undaunted, she and her cousin grabbed a couple of bamboo poles from the rack labeled “Tormenting or abusing American alligators is a federal offense.” At the end of each string was a bobby pin, on which you’re to impale a chunk of hot dog, which is then dangled into the little gator pool. In the water, about 25 gators hung out lazily among a sunken canoe and floating foam pads topped with little pots of plastic flowers.

Alli dangled the dog down into the water, bouncing it off the snout of a 4-foot gator. No action, which reminded me of the online comment I’d seen complaining that, “These alligators are spoiled. They wouldn’t eat our food.”

Alli kept bouncing the hot dog like a juicy Pomeranian that wandered too close to the drainage ditch, and in a moment one of the gators raised his snout and snapped at it. She played it like a master, jerking the line up right before the lizard got his teeth on the frank. Then she lowered it one more time, and he pulled a foot of the line into his mouth, sucked the dog off the bobby pin and slid back down below the plastic flowers.

Workin’ the topwaters for some fresh gator.

With that rippling of the water, the other gators caught on to the free meal and swam over to get their share. Alli and Justin milked their $2 half-dog for several minutes and created enough stir that a tourist couple wandered over to grab a few snapshots of the action.

It wasn’t quite as good as the very first gator feed I saw as a kid on a business trip with my parents to Louisiana. That time, we saw a crowd along the highway and pulled over to check out the scene. We discovered that people were lined up with fishing poles baited with raw chicken, tossing it into the ditch at wild gators laying a few feet from the people’s bare toes. My mom came over, saw a kid in diapers tottering along the water’s edge and shooed us back into the car before we saw something that would demand expensive therapy to fix.

Thanks to the chain-link fence at Kissimmee Go-Karts, we didn’t have any such worries on this trip. So we headed back to the house with all our digits, and me hoping that, even after a week of being wowed by Disney’s Imagineers, the kids might remember the night they fed the gators with bobby pins and $2 hot dogs.

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