Gatorland's big jaws turn 50 this week

Gatorland's big jaws turn 50 this week

View of the iconic jaws at Gatorland
View of the iconic jaws at Gatorland

An iconic bit of Orlando architecture turns 50 years old this week. Gatorland's trademark entrance — an oversized, stylized set of alligator jaws — has welcomed guests to the Orange Blossom Trail business since Florida's roadside-attraction era.

In the early 1960s, Gatorland founder Owen Godwin planned an expansion of the gift shop and asked son Frank to come up with a distinctive entrance.

"I took a big alligator skull home with me and put it on the coffee table in the living room and kept looking at it," said Frank Godwin, now 74. That led to a proposal for a gator mouth big enough to walk through. Visitors would pass under giant nostrils, past rows of menacing teeth, into the mouth and into Gatorland.

Construction took about six months with I-beams and concrete, said Frank Godwin, who eventually became general manager and CEO of the attraction before retiring in 1996. He built the structure alongside a welder and a small team of plasterers.

"We had to shape the rebar. I would hold a piece of it, and the welder would weld it in place. If it didn't look right, we un-welded it and redid it," Godwin said. "So that took quite a bit of time just trying to get the shape that we wanted. … I had it sketched out on paper — but you had to do it by eye."

View from inside the jaws at Gatorland
View from inside the jaws at Gatorland

The entrance opened in 1962, when attractions lured visitors with eye-catching architecture, said Rick Kilby, author of the upcoming Florida-history book "Finding the Fountain of Youth."

"During the era of the roadside attraction, the whole thing was to get people to pull off the side of the road," Kilby said.

It doubled as advertising and sometimes went viral, 1960s-style.

"Something as iconic as that ends up on postcards and being photographed," he said. "Back in the day, it ended up in slide shows when people went home."

The 15-foot-tall entrance is "without a doubt" the most photographed part of Gatorland, said Mark McHugh, current president and CEO. He sees adults posing with the mouth, re-creating old photos from their childhoods.

"It goes from generation to generation," said McHugh, Frank Godwin's son-in-law.

The mouth had a close call in November 2006, when an early-morning electrical fire destroyed the gift shop. At one point during the blaze, flames shot out through the mouth.

"I thought it was a goner," Godwin said. But the mouth survived, remained sturdy and passed inspection.

"When Frank builds something, he builds it to last a lifetime," McHugh said.

After the gift shop was rebuilt, its entrance no longer lined up with the big green jaws. That was by design, McHugh said.

Having fun at Gatorland
Having fun at Gatorland

"One of the biggest problems we had was people trying to take photographs while people were trying to get in and out of the doors," McHugh said. "It was really a bottleneck and a traffic jam there, so we just shifted the gift-shop doors just a little bit … to help make a better photograph and more pleasurable for people to hang out in."

Although Gatorland, which opened for business in 1949, has not sought historical-landmark status for the entrance, it does own the federal trademark for the look. Gatorland has taken legal action against businesses — including ones in Central Florida — that have come too close to copying the idea.

"We've had to have people close their alligator mouths," McHugh said.

"That's our pride and joy there," he said. "We're pretty particular about him."

Gatorland is only a short drive from all the popular vacation rental home resorts in Orlando, so why not visit Gatorland and get an amazing close-up encounter with Florida's apex predator.