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Fire shuts Florida gator attraction

Smoke rises after a blaze at Gatorland in Orlando, Fla., on Monday. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Smoke rises after a blaze at Gatorland in Orlando, Fla., on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

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, famous for its Gator Jumparoo and stunt-filled gator wrestling, reopens with a makeshift entrance, potentially missing out on the first part of the 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 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.

Within hours, the roof collapsed. A large crowd of the park’s employees gathered on the street, 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.