By Patrick F. Cannon
For those of us who live in Chicagoland, it’s been another eventful year. The capital of the Midwest got a new mayor, Lorie Lightfoot, whose tread on the political establishment has been anything but light. As usual, the Feds have indicted two aldermen, and have raided the offices and homes of a few more. Even though the murder rate continues to decline, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the evening news. Oh, and a special prosecutor has been named to look into the handling of a case of a no-talent actor who phonied up an attack on himself designed to get him a raise on a television series shot in Chicago, and then got off with a slap on the wrist.
There was much more, but all of it was eclipsed by the discovery of an alligator in a lagoon at Garfield Park. Until the poor creature was captured by Frank Robb, an expert imported from Florida, sightings and un-sightings were daily fodder for the local TV stations and even made the national news. He was dubbed “Chance the Snapper” in honor of Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper. Even after he was exiled to a refuge in Florida, his fame demanded a few follow-up stories, which may have finally stopped. Robb also had his moment of fame and must have been tempted to hire an agent. (As recently as Tuesday, there was a flash report on the news that he had found love. By the way, Robb sports a biblical beard. Biblical beards and tattoos seem to be today’s daily double. Why?)
My own experiences with the American Alligator are considerable. Most recently, on my many trips to Florida, I have spied the odd one lazing on the banks of a water hazard at one of the state’s many golf courses. Other than discouraging one from seeking a lost ball, they seem to mind their own business, which seems to be sleeping in the Sun.
On one trip, my brother Pete, his wife Mary Beth, and my wife Jeanette and I went to the Florida Everglades, where we took an air boat ride through that fascinating landscape, which I’m told is actually a slow-moving river. There were several very large gators in the waters surrounding the starting point, no doubt regularly fed by the owners to add a bit of atmosphere.
But my ultimate experience with the noble reptile came during a family trip to Disney World in the Summer of 1983. Son Patrick and daughter Elizabeth were then teenagers; we had taken them to Disneyland in California when they were much younger, and decided a trip to see the recently opened Epcot in Orlando was in order. We booked a package trip through a tour company, which included air, hotel and rental car.
The beginning was not auspicious, as one of the engines of the chartered jet caught fire at the gate. It was soon put out, and we were assured it was just a bit of spilled fuel that had ignited. We managed to get to Orlando, whose airport then was little more than a glorified hut, with outdoor baggage claim. We picked up our rental car, which broke down before we got to the main road. Duly issued another one, we finally made it to the hotel, which was OK, and even had a nice pool.
I won’t bore you with our experiences at Disney, except to say that we had a good time. Once we had exhausted its possibilities and ourselves, we had some free time and were looking for something else to do. In those days, Disney World was pretty much it; no Universal Studios or any of the other attractions that have turned Orlando into the fantasy capital of the world.
We did, however, stumble upon one of our Republic’s great roadside attractions: the legendary Gatorland Zoo and Jumperoo. We entered through a gators mouth (natch) into a building whose gift shop sold every possible gator-themed item – everything from refrigerator magnets to giant plush gators. The zoo itself included every imaginable permutation of the animal, with caimans and crocs thrown in for good measure. But it was the “Jumperoo” attraction that has embedded itself permanently in our memories.
Imagine if you will a platform extending over a pool full of alligators. Upon it stands a man with a wash tub full of raw chickens. The man takes a bird and holds it over the pool. In just a split second, a gator seemingly leaps up about four or five feet and grabs the chicken in its frightening maw and splashes back into the water below. While it chomps on its chicken, another chicken takes its place; another gator leaps – and so on until the tub is empty. (We were later told that the gators don’t actually leap, but rear up on their tails.)
Understandably, the audience was mesmerized, including our good selves. By the way, we couldn’t help noticing that the crowd mostly looked like it too had emerged from some dark and dismal swamp. Whole families seemed to share only one set of teeth. It may have been that Disney was a bit too rich for their blood, or perhaps it was just a matter of taste. Nowadays, a single day ticket at Disney costs about $110; at Gatorland, a mere $29.95.
Can’t recall just when, but the original building was destroyed by fire, but apparently has been lovingly rebuilt, including the gaping jaw entrance. You could enliven your next trip to Florida with a visit. I see on their web site that the show goes on.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon