Alligators were everywhere, and only a few feet away from where I stood. Some lounged on the sand. Some swam in a small stream. Some yawned. Some snoozed.
Once in a while one would slither into the water with a splash and then start thrashing around, causing a chain reaction. But mostly they just paddled slowly along, climbing over each other, while those on shore lazily eyed visitors like me.
I think I can see why people come to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. They visit from around the world, and from around the First Coast as well. Even though alligators are native in these parts, you don’t see them up close and personal like you do at the historic zoo. People have been coming to the attraction since 1893. Other than the Silver Springs glass-bottom boat rides, it is the second-oldest attraction in Florida.
Victorian entrepreneurs George Reddington and Felix Fire created The Alligator Farm on Anastasia Island to attract wealthy St. Augustine vacationers staying at Henry Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon. It was originally located in what is now Anastasia State Park, in an area which is now underwater due to natural landscape changes. Storms and fires in the early 1920s prompted the owners to relocate the attraction to its present location near the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Its iconic Mission-style building, through which guests enter today, was built in 1937.
But it has modernized over the decades with frequently updated exhibits and interactive-visitor adventures, such as the Crocodile Crossing Zip Through the Zoo obstacle courses over the park’s seven acres of alligators, crocodiles, birds, lemurs and other rare and exotic animals.
“We always say that we are over 120 years old, but don’t want to look like it,” says Director John Brueggen. “We are constantly making improvements and upgrades.”
The park has about 900 American Alligators, most residing in the Alligator Swamp and Wading Bird Rookery section, which is filled with many species of native birds who chose to live there because of the alligators. They nest in trees above the gators, who keep climbing predators, like raccoons, away.
Strolling along the boardwalk through the rookery, I could see why the birds feel safe there. The pond was filled with hundreds of alligators. No raccoon in its right mind would set foot anywhere near the place.
In addition to Alligator Lagoon, where about 25 American Alligators slither, swim and snooze around a circular stream, there is the Land of Crocodiles, which features all of the world’s 23 species of crocodilian. The park also features birds of Africa, including cranes, vultures and storks; lemurs from Madagascar; birds and reptiles from Australia, including Komodo Dragons; rare albino alligators from Louisiana; and Maximo, a 15 feet 6 inches long saltwater crocodile, weighing in at 1,250 pounds.
“Our focus has changed from decade to decade,” Brueggen says.
But alligators are still its heart. “Essentially, Victorian visitors paid to look at alligators,” he says, “and people are still paying to look at them.”