ORLANDO, Fla. – An intense fire tore through one of central Florida's oldest tourist attractions Monday, gutting Gatorland and appears to have killed two crocodiles and to pythons, a spokesman said.
Fire crews were still extinguishing the smoldering blaze late Monday morning, so park officials hadn't yet surveyed damage inside.
The park opened in 1949, back when many motorists from the northern states drove through the length of Florida on winter vacations. It still attracts about 400,000 tourists each year.
It features exhibitions of people wrestling gators, a "jumparoo" show where the big reptiles leap for food, and "up close" encounters where guests can hold snakes, scorpions, spiders and birds.
Tim Williams, the park's director of media production, and himself a gator wrestler, said Gatorland's alligators were believed to have hidden safely in a lake, but the fire may have claimed two 5-foot long crocodiles and two 8-foot pythons kept in a holding pen near the gift shop. They were feared dead but not yet located.
The other few thousand of the park's animals were kept in pens away from the blaze or in enough water to protect them.
Williams vowed that the show would eventually go on again at Gatorland.
"This park is like an old alligator. Gators fight, they get scarred up, they get beat up, they tear each other up, but they're resilient. This park's been here for 57 years," he said. "We're not going anywhere. It's the alligator capitol of the world. It's got a few scars and smudges on it, but we'll clean it up." The blaze, reported at 5:55 a.m., consumed the park's gift shop and an adjacent area roughly 300 feet long by 50 feet wide, Orange County Fire Battalion Chief Vince Preston said.
Williams said it would be "many, many months" before the attraction could reopen.
The fire destroyed the park's main entrance: a giant concrete gator head, whose upper jaw is now charred, its formerly white teeth blackened with soot, its mouth full of smoldering debris. The mural facade around it, which had just been given a fresh coat of paint in an overhaul, was torn and burnt. The cypress and palm trees lining the outside were singed and limp.