Our Story

GatorWorld Parks of Florida is home to approximately 400 gators

Entering the park through the main gateway from Highway 44 puts you on a scenic gravel roadway snaking through the front end of the park, providing views of the gators lounging in roadside pools like “Big Al” here, a 12′ Alligator at GatorWorld. The specially-constructed pools are surrounded by common areas for the gators to wander, simulating their natural environment.

At the end of the drive-through course is where the action begins…

…Here, visitors have the opportunity to feed alligators from a raised platform, dangling a pole over a swirling collection of young gators looking forward anxiously to a treat!

It’s a unique feature that combines the visual excitement of a live gator encounter with the experience of making contact with a member of one of the oldest reptilian species nature has to offer. To be sure, it will look like the chaos of a feeding frenzy, but it’s not unlike how young gators live in the wild. Visitors also can spend time in GatorWorld Parks’ petting zoo, where a collection of small and cuddly animals await the attention of visitors. Of course, there will be opportunities to feed and interact with the goats and sheep and, as an added attraction, a visit to the “Bunny House” makes it possible to hold a live (and very friendly) rabbit.

Other activities designed to make the GatorWorld Parks of Florida experience complete include being able to hold a gator (safely, of course) and to have a souvenir photo taken with the Park’s own “Big Al”—a giant gator just waiting to make your acquaintance.

The Founder

GatorWorld Parks of Florida founder, Don Buckner
GatorWorld Parks of Florida founder, Don Buckner

Meet our Founder, Don Buckner. In every sense of the word, Don is an entrepreneur, but he is also well known in Florida’s industrial community as a visionary, theorist, and downright get-things- done kind of guy.

He’s a native Floridian, and has built an enviable track record of success in the business community. For example, over a twenty-year period, he built—from scratch, starting in his garage—a major new environmental equipment company, Vac-Tron Equipment, that revolutionized the Clean-up Industry and earned him many awards such as, Florida’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 and Number 3 in the nation.

He and his team grew the company 6500% in just 3 years placing it as number 13 in the INC 500’s “Fastest Growing Private Company in the Country” list. From a start-up to one of the world’s largest producers of industrial vacuum in 20 years—that pretty much describes Don’s style. He says 1) No matter what always protect your honor by doing the right thing 2) Treat everyone as your friend, be warm and caring. 3) Reputation is everything. 4) Don’t worry about what you can’t control. 5) Keep it simple.

The Idea

In 2000, Don was invited to join Governor Jeb Bush as part of a Trade Delegation visiting South America. One of the groups that were with them on the trip was the Orlando Tourism Commission, during which he took part in discussions about tourist interests in Florida and some simple facts came to light and was that there were three common denominators for tourist visits and that was—Theme Parks, beaches, and alligators. Those discussions planted the seed. Almost all Florida visitors seem to have seeing an alligator on their bucket list!

That was an “Aha!” moment for Don, along with the realization that there was a need to create a quick and easy—and low-cost—way for visitors to check the alligator experience off their list. Realizing that there are several ways to accomplish an alligator sighting, like full-day park visits, airboat tours, and begging a family member to take them out in the lake to try to spot an Alligator, it became obvious that none of these were especially quick and easy. With the light bulb shining bright, Don Trademarked the name GatorWorld, and the concept of a “drive-through” alligator-themed venue was born.

The Approach

Visitors feeding alligators from a raised platform

Having an idea is one thing…putting it into motion is something entirely different. Here’s where Don Buckner’s entrepreneurial spirit kicks in. In addition to his Vac-Tron success, he’s the driving force behind campaigns like MadeInTheUSA.com, the planned e-commerce website designed to promote the country’s largest collection of American-made products, and Promise Ranch, a family farm and spring-fed fishing venue dedicated to improving the quality of food on the table. His faith-based approach to using personal creativity to accomplish objectives has produced solid results. Don’s vision enables him to see through obstacles and devise plans born of simplicity.

For GatorWorld Parks, this vision involved viewing the objective through the eyes of a tourist. “What a Florida tourist really wants,” suggests Don, “is to be able to have the ‘Gator Experience’ in a setting that is quick and easy, but that doesn’t consume a lot of time and money.” He boils the experience down to providing a way to “see a gator, hold a gator, feed a gator” in the most authentic and simplest of settings. But in crafting the approach, Don realized that GatorWorld Parks presented an opportunity to be more than just an entertainment setting.

“The way we acquire alligators for the park is to purchase them from trappers who would otherwise euthanize them,” he notes, “and we also purchase smaller gators from harvesting operations planning to use them as materials for products.”

 

He quickly realized that the park could serve a dual purpose as a tourist attraction and a sanctuary or rescue facility for alligators.

Getting Started

Young rescued and relocated gators at GatorWorld

The first step in putting GatorWorld Parks into place involved selection of a site conducive to tourist travel, but sufficiently rural to preserve the look and feel of “Old Florida.” His acquisition of a 15-acre plot just off Interstate 75 and Florida’s Turnpike in Central Florida’s Sumter County filled that bill quite nicely, and the project was off and running. The next step was to begin the licensing process required to create a public entertainment venue, as well as making the arrangements for acquiring a cast of alligators to serve as the main attraction at the park.

As the initial planning unfolded, Don simultaneously set about expanding the scope to include more than gators, anticipating that young visitors would also enjoy the opportunity to enjoy interaction with small animals in a petting zoo setting. One of the main premises of GatorWorld Parks’ overall plan is to offer a convenient experience, with minimal walking and beautiful native scenery, all offered in a setting where being able to stay in the Air-conditioned car during the visit rules out weather or bug related problems.

Visiting GatorWorld Parks of Florida

Finding the park is easy. It’s located one mile west of Interstate 75 on Florida Route 44, just outside of the Wildwood, Florida city limits. The entry fee is only per person, and there are special discounts for veterans, Active Military, First Responders, and Seniors (age 65 and over). Be sure to buy your tickets online. GatorWorld Parks is closed Sundays year-round.

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