There are plenty of ways to add a hit of adrenaline to your Florida beach vacation, but few are quite as uniquely Floridian as coming face-to-face with one of the Sunshine State's most notorious residents: the alligator. There are reportedly up to a million alligators in the state, mostly in the state's inland lakes and waterways. There are plenty of different ways to get your gator fix while vacationing in the Tampa Bay area. You can see them in the wild, you can eat them, or even pucker up and give one a kiss... if you've got the guts, that is. Inspired by Madeira Beach's Alligator Attraction, here's the lowdown on all of the wildest gator experiences.
Whether you're looking to get up close and personal with a gator, or you're curious to learn all about them, The Alligator Attraction is your spot. It's the perfect first stop on an alligator-themed adventure, since they're experts in all things gator. They care for about 60 alligators, along with dozens of other reptiles such as tortoises and lizards, and even boast an aquarium loaded with gorgeous tropical fish. The attraction works hard to provide an unforgettable experience while educating visitors about conservation and preserving Florida's wildlife habitats. The coolest offering here is the VIP Experience. The chance to hold, feed, and even kiss a real, live alligator is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the pros at the Alligator Attraction will have you in touch with your inner Steve Irwin in no time.
If you're hoping to spot an alligator in the wild, Sawgrass Lake Park is a great stop. The 400- acre park protects a huge maple swamp, which serves as a refuge for all kinds of wildlife, especially birds, in the densely-populated Tampa-St. Pete area. Stroll along the mile-long boardwalk and keep your eyes peeled for herons, egrets, ibis, wood storks, butterflies, alligators, and turtles. One of the coolest features here is the observation tower that offers sweeping views of the marshy lakes and canals. A stop into the education center before exploring the boardwalk will give you tons of info on what kinds of animals you might spot and what to look for.
Some people would rather eat gators than look at them. If you're looking to sample this Florida delicacy, one option is to hit up Cajun Cafe On The Bayou. This hidden gem brings a taste of New Orleans to Florida's Gulf Coast, with a menu bursting with Cajun specialties. They offer favorites like po' boys, etouffee, jambalaya, gumbo, and crawfish lagniappe, alongside things like Alligator piquante, gator sausage, gator burgers, and fried gator bites. It's all cooked to perfection, with plenty of spice, best enjoyed on the waterside patio with an Abita. And, if gator isn't weird enough for you, try the frog legs.
If you're more in the mood for breakfast than a catfish po' boy, you can also get your gator fix at Lenny's Restaurant in Clearwater. The New York deli-style eatery has all of the favorites (knishes, blintzes, deli sandwiches, and fresh bagels, all made in-house) but adds a Southern spin with grits, scrapple, and other staples. The three-egg gator omelette is a can't miss-- it comes served with cheddar cheese sauce, sauteed onions, Hollandaise and a sprinkling of Cajun seasoning. And that's not counting the complimentary Danish basket and plethora of sides it comes with ... you'll probably want to split it with someone.
For a guaranteed gator sighting, there's always ZooTampa at Lowry Park. It features all kinds of wild creatures beyond alligators, of course. Once you're done watching the gators sun themselves, check out the elephants, giraffes, adorable pygmy hippos, manatees, orangutans, and much, much more. Kids will have just as much fun learning about and seeing the animals as they will riding the rides ZooTampa offers, which range from coasters and carousels to an open-air safari. And, of course, there are a handful of animal encounters you can book as well; the ability to meet or feed penguins, rhinos, and giant tortoises will take your zoo adventure to the next level.
There are places to find gators in the wild in Tampa, too. Lettuce Lake Park is a serene slice of natural beauty hidden along the Hillsborough River. This swampy hardwood forest of ancient oaks is a perfect habitat for alligators, turtles, and birds aplenty. There's a boardwalk and observation tower, along with a paved exercise trail to explore. If you want to get out on the water, rent a kayak or canoe; you might even be treated to a more up-close and personal view of the gators. Otherwise, the best chance for wildlife spotting is around sunrise or sunset.
Paddling the waterways in the area is probably the best way to encounter a gator in the wild. Canoe Escape offers guided tours, and a variety of self-guided trips for those who want to do their own exploring. Whichever option you choose, you can take your time to wildlife watch, picnic, swim, take pictures, or fish. You're sure to see plenty of Hillsborough River critters like turtles, limpkins, osprey, roseate spoonbills, herons, white ibis, maybe even an otter or an eagle... and, of course, alligators. Canoe Escape also offers occasional moonlight paddles, which are incredibly special.
Whether you're spotting them in the wild, feeding them at the Alligator Attraction, or eating them in a cheese-smothered omelette, gators are uniquely Floridian. Taking a page from their book and basking in the sunshine is a perfect way to enjoy a Florida vacation! And whether you're looking for kitschy fun, good eats, or natural wonders, there's a gator-themed experience for you. Plus, let's be real... there's no experience more authentically "Florida" than kissing an alligator.
Banner Photo Credit: via Shutterstock/ Anthony Ricci
Alligator Attraction is the ultimate destination to meet the most unique and interesting animal species up close and personal. Our Hands-On Adventures create memories and photo opportunities that will last a life time. Have you ever Kissed A Gator?