Gatorland’s new outdoor attraction was an inside job.
The Stompin’ Gator Off-road Adventure was created by Gatorland’s in-house creative team, from the ride design and its humor-driven script to the down-home graphics and unorthodox approach to décor, including leftover wire from the attraction’s zip line.
For CEO Mark McHugh, the do-it-yourself approach yields benefits in control and cash. In the fall of 2015, he added three people to the staff with the skills to produce and maintain projects at the South Orange Blossom Trail attraction, which opened in 1949.
“Attractions our size don’t do this internally,” McHugh said. “It was a risk to spend the money and develop this team inside our own park.”
Stompin’ Gator, which opened in December, is a monster truck-inspired experience that takes Gatorland visitors through swampy areas formerly behind the scenes, including a stretch through authentic alligator burial grounds.
But it’s funny.
“We wanted a real theme-park ride, with a storyline,” McHugh said. “It’s entertainment. People are laughing the whole time.”
He hired Dan Carro as creative director, who quickly came upon challenges. It would be a bumpy ride, literally and figuratively. His idea of using animatronics was nixed by lack of electricity on the ride site.
“We had to figure out how do we get that rhythm that people expect from a big theme-park ride?” Carro said. “How do we get the plot points in — rising action, falling action, all of that – while really being off the beaten path on muddy roads in the back?”
Ingenuity, technology and flexibility played parts.
A script was developed for the swamp-buggy drivers. Carro wrote the base, then there was riffing among the team and revisions.
“They wanted it to be something where it operated on a lot of different levels: Little kids would go in and just have a great time going over the bumps, but there were still jokes,” Carro said.
The plot revolves around a corporation taking over a little, locally owned alligator attraction. That idea comes from close to home.
“What’s our worst nightmare? Someone coming here and taking this park and making it fake,” said Diane McHugh, a Gatorland board member and project manager. Her grandfather, Owen Godwin, founded Gatorland.
Passengers board a 12-seat, elevated platform swamp buggy for the adventure, which costs an extra $10 beyond regular Gatorland admission. The vehicles are tricked out, monster-truck style, with alligator caricatures named after three famed animals who thrived at the attraction: Bonecrusher, Swamp Ghost and Cannibal Jake.
Before the modified vehicles were complete, creative-team member Ken Guzzetti did 3-D modeling of them.
“Every nut, every bolt, the engine, everything,” said Carro, who applied original alligator imagery to the models, which were later used in Stompin’ Gator advertising. Aaron Marable, another new hire, had seen the art from sketches to drawing and inked versions to full color and digital painting.
“We had a really small team of people who were wearing a lot of hats,” Carro said. For example, Marable, known for his painting skills, learned more about concrete sculpting along the ride’s course.
Many attractions that are the size of Gatorland buy pre-designed attractions instead of installing unique concepts, said Doug Stagner, chief operating officer of Orlando-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade group.
Working in-house is “unusual in the industry, but not unusual for Gatorland because they’re kind of known for being innovative and self-sufficient in many respects,” Stagner said.
He referred to Stompin’ Gator as a location-based experience, a growing trend in the industry.
“They’re not doing virtual reality out there,” he said. “It’s innovation in terms of enhancing the guest experience.”
The attraction’s creative process experienced curves along the way. The alligator illustrations went from realistic to more cartoony. And after Diane McHugh spent days polling Gatorland guests, the characters’ clothing was switched from overalls to flannel shirts. The speaking parts were shifted from the driver to another on-board employee in character.
And after some early ride testing, three more moguls were added to the course, a decision that could be made without a lot of red tape, said Diane McHugh.
“Like all these other huge parks – it would take them a year to come up with that decision to add three more moguls,” she said.
Meanwhile, the team used an array of sources to prepare Stompin’ Gator scenery. They found a rusted-out pickup truck on the side of the road in Polk County. They bought concrete barriers from a man on Craigslist and plungers in bulk from Amazon. They used leftover cable from the zip-line attraction that opened back in 2011.
“This is a place where everything doesn’t have to be new and classy,” said Mike Hileman, director of entertainment.
“It’s being resourceful,” Diane McHugh said.
Outside companies were hired for the heavier construction such as digging the hole for a lake, erecting a fence and building the hub where visitors depart on the off-road adventure. The total price tag on the project was $2.2 million, and having an in-house creative team “easily saved us $200,000 to $300,000,” Mark McHugh said.
Reaction to Stompin’ Gator has been positive, said Chelsea McHugh, who supervises the attraction and is the great-granddaughter of the Gatorland founder.
“The only comments we have is that people from the U.K. want it to be more bumpy,” she said. “They want it to be crazy.”
Mark McHugh said Gatorland has more projects coming up, including a group pavilion and indoor restaurant as well as still-undisclosed entertainment projects. His strategy continues to be to have the money in hand before starting, he said. .
“We think the next downturn is going to happen. We don’t know when. It always does,” he said. “If we don’t have a whole lot of debt, we can survive it. That’s why we’ve been around for 68 years.”
Going forward, having the creators being members of the Gatorland team also helps with maintenance of the new ride and its look as well as the overall vision for the attraction.
“In some cases I think we were being innovative, and in some cases we didn’t know better and it worked,” Carro said. “It all came together to make something unique.”
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