ORLANDO — Looking out over Gatorland, the view can be jaw-dropping. From a canopy of pines, cypresses and palms to birds soaring above, the vistas make it easy to forget the unfortunately juxtaposed U-Haul storage center across the road and buy into the old-school theme park's man-made serenity.
But as I stood there, on the first of seven wooden towers that link the 1,200-foot Screamin' Gator Zip Line, I couldn't help but look down. I had stared wild alligators in the eye aboard airboats as a bait-sized fourth-grader, but here, more than a decade later, I could barely hear the guide's reassuring words as I looked to the ground, fearing not the height or the fall but the open jaws waiting at the bottom.
Down about 50 feet and to the right was the "up-close-and-personal" feeding area for just some of the hundreds of alligators on the premises. I prayed it hadn't been too long since their last feast. I doubted that the alligators would forgive me for the gator burger I savored less than a week earlier.
That was all before the first leap of faith. Before I stepped into a harness and hooked my assortment of ropes and carabiners to a steel cord. Before I flew at nearly 25 mph above a breeding marsh teeming with alligators.
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Reading the fine print is rarely a good idea, especially when you're minutes away from leaping over a predator that can give you a head start on land or water, if for no reason other than to mull over the list of ways it can kill you. But there was too much in bold and all-caps to resist.
As I scanned the "Full and Unconditional Release of Liability" form, a few lines leaped out at me, like the jumping Cuban crocodiles beneath the zip line. After telling of the "inherent risks in this type of activity," the form made it clear that it covered "bodily injury (including death)." My hand trembling, I sighed and scribbled my name. If the ropes and carabiner hadn't already given it away, the words "I hereby specifically waive the right to trial by jury," assured me that I was on the hook.
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Of the few regrets I took away from the ride, one was the noticeable lack of an educational side to the tour. Throughout the afternoon, guides spoke ad nauseam of their training and the redundancies upon redundancies that made this zip line safe, but had little to say about the various species we passed overhead. (This information, Gatorland staff assured me, would be included in the tours once they open to the public June 16.)
But, in fairness, there were times when ignorance was bliss. Only after I passed directly over Sultan and Blondie, a Nile crocodile couple, did I learn that the two were known to chase down Gatorland staff members as they shoveled a new layer of white sand.
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Tim Williams, Gatorland's "dean" of alligator wrestling, gave me a bit more insider knowledge. Before zipping across the park's breeding marsh on "The Widowmaker," the fourth — and longest — portion of the zip line, Williams told me about Buddy. Weighing in at more than 1,000 pounds, the 14-footer rivals only "Chester" — a gator made famous in the Tampa area for his unpopular hobby of eating dogs "at the other end of a leash" — as the biggest alligator in the ring.
While Chester lives in a glass enclosure, I knew Buddy was out there somewhere. Yet as I zipped across the marsh, distinguishing between alligator heads and logs, any remaining jitters were gone. By then, I saw the zip line as a hybrid of a roller coaster and Ferris wheel — a fast-paced adrenaline rush combined with an unbridled bird's-eye view of alligators protecting their nests and flamingos gathering at water's edge.
The $1.8 million project takes great pains to put visitors at ease. The first leg of the line is purposely the shortest. A fun-loving staff of guides will force a smile as you insist that your 7-year-old be fitted with an adult-sized helmet. And they will thoroughly check your harness at each stop, picking up any slack in the straps before you leap into the air or cross the swinging bridge.
After planting my feet at the final green landing area, I thanked the guides for a job well done. With their help, I had survived the "Screamin' Gator Zip Line."
All that was missing was a T-shirt to prove it.