ORLANDO, Fla. – Gatorland, the Central Florida attraction immortalized in countless family snapshots of the giant gator jaws at its entrance, burned nearly beyond recognition Monday – but the family that founded the park in 1949 vowed it will reopen.

“This ain’t our first rodeo,” said President Mark McHugh, whose wife is the granddaughter of original owner Owen Godwin Sr. “In 57 years we’ve had hurricanes, gas crisis, recessions, 9-11. A fire’s not going to stop us.” He said it could be several weeks before the icon of old Florida tourism reopens with a makeshift entrance, potentially missing out on the first part of the critical holiday tourist season.

The gift shop, administrative offices and much of a recent $1 million renovation was destroyed, including wildlife murals on the exterior of the building, landscaping and reinforcement and a fresh paint job for those famous gator jaws.

The boardwalk that winds through the 110 acres of swamp that is home to about 1,000 alligators was left untouched by the blaze. One dwarf crocodile and two python snakes housed in the gift shop are thought to be the only casualties.

The State Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the cause of the fire, which was reported at 5:55 a.m. McHugh said he believes the blaze was accidental, though arson has not been ruled out by the Fire Marshal.

Two employees tried to fight the flames with fire extinguishers before firefighters arrived.

“It did nothing,” said Tim Williams, dean of alligator wrestling, of his effort with another employee, Robert Manning, to put the blaze out.

Williams arrived at Gatorland about 5:30 a.m. and said he didn’t notice anything unusual. He was preparing to transport a 9-foot alligator along with two smaller reptiles to St. Augustine so they could star in a television commercial for a restaurant.

About 15 minutes later, Manning ran by his office and shouted for him to grab a fire extinguisher. Manning noticed the flames as he returned from a trip to pick up breakfast.

Within hours, the roof collapsed. A large crowd of the park’s 95 employees gathered on the street, helplessly looking on as the fire raged.

“It’s like watching your house burn up,” Williams said.

McHugh said off-duty law enforcement officers will guard the property until a fence is installed around the front perimeter. The gator pens, he said, were not damaged and the reptiles are contained.


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