This review of Gator Country was not in any way paid for or sponsored by Gator Country! We purchased tickets and I wanted to write about it as a part of my Houston Field Trips series. Gator Country is just west of Beaumont, TX, about an hour from Houston.
I have had a long relationship with alligators. I think it began when we visited an alligator farm when I was in elementary school and then blossomed into true love when we spent several vacations on Kiawah Island just outside Charleston, South Carolina. Kiawah is a totally wild place. By that I mean while vacationing I saw gators, snakes, bobcats, turtles, and tons of other wildlife. My uncle swears he saw a puma. The island is private and has retained tons of natural areas where animals thrive. You might be grilling out back and have a gator come hang out in the lagoon nearby, hoping for a treat. (By the way, don’t EVER feed or harass alligators!)
I spent one May at Kiawah walking around with a camera taking rolls of film (back before digital) of alligators sunning themselves. When we got them developed my parents were horrified at how close I got. I also got bitten here in Texas when I tried to keep a smaller gator from crossing a busy highway. I succeeded in scaring him away from the road, but got my fingers snapped in the process. No scar, sadly. That’s the kind of scar you WANT to show up, right?
In any case, I have passed on this love to my children (and have tried to give them more of a healthy fear than I clearly don’t have enough fear) and, begrudgingly, Rob. He rolls his eyes when I insist on stopping in Louisiana to pet the gators (exit 64 off I-10 in case you’re road tripping!) but has accompanied me many times to Brazos Bend State Park and is almost as good as spotting them as I am.
A few months back I bought tickets to Gator Country from a daily deal site and almost forgot about them. Sawyer is out of school for the summer while Cooper and Lincoln are going to the same preschool two days a week. We decided taking a field trip to Gator Country would be a perfect way to spend Thursday. Here are some thoughts in case you are local and want to visit Gator Country yourself!
I love smaller parks. You can often get a more personal experience and more bang for your buck. This is definitely true at Gator Country where Sawyer got to hold several alligators and a snake in the first few minutes we were there. The park has a great indoor building with a ton of snakes and gators and turtles, most native to Texas. In the summer, an indoor building is essential for survival. The funny part was that the “employee” who helped Sawyer handle the animals was an 11-year-old boy who is either in the family or a volunteer. He was totally knowledgeable, but it was pretty hilarious. Sawyer loved the small space of the park, which meant that we made several laps. He also enjoyed doing the exhibits several times AND playing on the playground outside. (While I sat sweating in a chair.) There are also some extras you can pay for, including SWIMMING WITH ALLIGATORS. He brought his birthday money and paid $10 for this (which I think was totally worth it). There wasn’t a set time limit, but he spent over 10 minutes in a pool with three smaller gators, swimming and handling them before it got too crowded and they let a second set of people into the pool. He totally loved this part and really got up close and personal, swimming on the bottom with them and learning how to properly handle them. Oh! Did I mention their mouths are taped shut? They are. He did a better job than most of the older people and kids who also did the swimming and I was proud of his ability to handle them without harassing them.
At noon there was an educational program put on by an employee and volunteer. I wanted this to be educational and Sawyer definitely picked up some facts. The downside was that it was outside (very hot) and went on way too long (45 minutes) for little people to handle. They did bring out some animals, but not enough to keep it lively for small children. I also caught one mistake in their information. They claimed that the stats for alligator fatalities in our country was 0%. I know for a fact that there have been alligator fatalities. They are slim, but they do happen, mostly in Florida when people are swimming in areas with gators. He might have meant to say Texas, and I don’t know of fatalities from gators here, but he said this country. We definitely want a healthy fear of gators, not an irrational one. They don’t generally attack people, but like any wild animal, they are wild and will react to people in their environment in unpredictable ways.
WARNING: At two points in the show, they threw fake animals (a snake and an alligator) into the crowd. The first time it was mostly funny as they tossed a very large stuffed animal alligator suddenly from a door. The woman whose lap it landed in got a scare, but the kind that you can laugh about. The second time they threw a fake coral snake at a small girl as they were talking about bringing out a REAL coral snake. The girl spent several minutes crying and her family was genuinely angry. The speaker said they were trying to prove the point that kids should stay away from coral snakes, but that’s not how you handle that.
As with many of these kinds of parks, there is also the issue of teaching safety about animals and then disregarding the rules for the sake of entertainment. Gator Country is home to Big Al, the biggest alligator in captivity here in Texas at just over 13 feet. He is enormous. After the educational program, several of the workers go mess with Big Al to get him to come out of the bottom of his pond, where he hides in the hot summer.
I love watching animals move and do things and alligators normally don’t do a lot. They just don’t. So I totally get why they do this. Shows and excitement are part of why people come to parks like this. But it is a mixed message to tell people not to mess with alligators and then to do it. I captured one of the tense moments and made it into a gif below. The volunteer said it was his closest call with Big Al he’s ever had. I wouldn’t be shocked if one day Big Al actually gets someone. Be prepared to talk to your kids about how you behave with gators in real life: don’t approach, don’t feed, don’t harass. Observe from a very safe distance. The end.
For a pregnant woman, this was a torturous day. No animal park smells amazing, but apparently the park had been given 40,000 pounds of turkey meat that had gone bad in transport to a grocery store. The gators didn’t eat it all, so there were literally pounds of rancid turkey meat rotting in the 100-degree heat. I am still haunted by the smell today and it’s a wonder I didn’t vomit. If you’re going to visit, wait til next month? It was truly disgusting.
Before we even left, Sawyer was asking to go back. Gator Country was definitely a hit for him with its small space and hands-on activities. He loves animals and being able to interact and even swim with them was a truly neat experience. I would definitely recommend taking a trip from Houston (or if you’re in Beaumont it’s even closer) with your kids if they are into animals. Sawyer came away with several new alligator facts and some great memories that I think he will remember forever. I told Rob that he may also have some alligator-wrangling in his future. Since working hands-on with gators is something on my bucket list, I can’t say I’m surprised.