On the last of three visits to the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida, my friend and fellow traveler, Ceasar Sharper, and I were talking to a couple of other bird photographers from the Charlotte, NC area. They asked us if we had been to Gatorland near Orlando. When we said we hadn’t even heard of Gatorland, they urged us to go, saying that it was twice as big as the Farm, their tone implying that it was twice as good. Twice as good? Our planned single visit to the Alligator Farm turned into three trips, because we were getting so many great images. How could any rookery be that much better?
Our plan for this seven day, ten stop, birding hotspot trip called for us to leave St. Augustine and head to Fort DeSoto State Park near St. Pertersburg, Florida. Since we were taking Interstate 4 to St. Pete which passes through Orlando, we decided to make the short side trip to Gatorland. We were glad that we did.
Gatorland started in the late 40‘s as a family owned, small roadside feature like many others throughout Florida. Not much more than a small muddy pond with a few alligators, some snakes and a thatched roof gift shop, the theme park now occupies 110 acres and is one of the most popular “small attractions” in the state.
The rookery is the natural result of creating a ten acre alligator Breeding Marsh with oaks and cypress trees along the bank. Attracting thousands of birds of more than 20 species, the rookery has become the largest in central Florida.
Our visit started off especially well. When we stepped up to the ticket booth, I asked if there was a senior discount. The very pleasant and enthusiastic lady helping us asked if we were veterans. I said that I wasn’t , but that Ceasar was a retired Air Force officer. The lady reached out of the ticket window, shook Ceasar’s hand, thanked him for his service and told him to enter without charge. If that wasn’t great enough, she charged me less than half the $24.95 regular ticket price as a senior discount. These discounts are not posted at the entrance or on the website, so I don’t know if they are part of the standard policies or if we just had a very generous and pleasant ticket taker that day.
After entering the park, we walked a short distance to the entrance of the Alligator Breeding Marsh and Wading Bird Rookery. The rookery is in the trees that surround a large rectangular lake. A wide boardwalk runs the entire length and across the far end of the marsh with plenty of room for tripods and gear without worry of blocking the way. At the end of the long side of the walkway is a three story high observation tower which is large enough and strong enough to support a large crowd. There is also a large gazebo along the boardwalk to allow guests to rest and get out of the sun.
From the time you enter you immediately see birds everywhere. On the right side of the boardwalk birds are nesting within arms reach. Across the main body of water, the shoreline is lined with oaks and cypress trees and it seems everyone has several pairs of birds in various stages of raising a new clutch. There seemed to be pretty much the same mix as we had seen at the Alligator Farm, although we did not see any Spoonbills while we were there; however, we did see nesting anhingas which we didn’t see at the Farm.
A search on the web produced several articles comparing the rookeries, The Alligator Farm and Gatorland. I’m not going to repeat that information or give a statistical comparison. I do want to make some comparisons of the two parks from a bird photography perspective.
At the Alligator Farm virtually all the birds are close enough that you do not need to have a long lens to capture great images. At Gatorland, many of the birds are across the lake and a long lens is required to get intimate shots of them. There are many birds along the boardwalk that do not require long glass, but for example, all of the nesting wood storks were on the other side of the lake.
On the other hand, Gatorland has the observation tower. In addition to being a great place to set your tripod and long lens and look directly across to the nesting birds, it is great for getting in-flight shots. The lake is long, so you have plenty of time to see birds flying into the rookery. When up in the tower you can shoot these birds at the level that they are flying and even from an above the bird perspective. There is no tower at the Farm and I don’t think it would be of much advantage there since you are so close to all of the birds anyway.
Both parks offer a Photo Pass, but they are a little different. The Gatorland annual pass is $99 ($79 for seniors) versus $79 at the Farm and it is only good for Thursday through Sunday. The pass allows early entry at 7:30 AM compared to 8:00 at the Alligator Farm. The Gatorland Photo Pass also allows for after hours stay, but only on Saturday. Gatorland also has a one day Photo Pass and other options.
So, is Gatorland twice as good for bird photography as the Alligator Farm? The short answer is no. Frankly, if I had to choose between the two purely from a bird photography viewpoint, I would choose the Alligator Farm because of its better access to the birds. But usually the choice is not that simple. If you are with your family or non-birders, Gatorland is bigger and has more features. It is also close to Disney World and other major attractions.
The bottom line is that you cannot go wrong with either. They both have great facilities with friendly, helpful staffs, and lots of alligators. So do yourself a favor and do like I did, go to both!
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