By TRAVIS REED / Associated Press Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. — A three-alarm fire broke out in one of central Florida's oldest attractions early Monday morning, killing three animals but injuring no one at Gatorland. The blaze charred the concrete alligator mouth tourists walked through to enter the park — an old Florida icon that has appeared in movies, magazines and countless tourists' pictures. Gatorland spokeswoman Michelle Harris said two 8-foot-long pythons kept in a holding pen near the gift shop were dead, as was a 5-foot-long crocodile.
Another crocodile named Mr. O, who kept in the same area was feared dead, but was later found alive, she said. He had managed to stay safe by dipping underwater in a pond, Harris said. The other few thousand of the park's animals were kept in pens away from the fire or in enough water to protect them.
The fire, reported at 5:55 a.m., destroyed the park's 7,000-square-foot gift shop, entrance and some administrative offices. Other office space, and the places where Gatorland entertainers perform were not damaged. The park opened in 1949 and attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. It features exhibitions of people wrestling gators, a "jumparoo" show where the big reptiles leap for food, and "up close" encounters where guests can hold snakes, scorpions, spiders and birds. Orange County Fire Battalion Chief Vince Preston said the souvenir store was engulfed in flames when the first crews arrived. "It had already been through the roof; it was obvious that this was going to be an extended operation," he said. Preston said it took about two hours to get the blaze under control. It was finally declared out, despite some nagging hot spots, at about 12:30 p.m.
The fire destroyed the park's main entrance and marred its most distinctive feature: a giant, concrete gator head, whose jaw is now blackened with soot and full of debris. The mural facade around it, which had just been given a fresh coat of paint in a $1.5 million overhaul, was torn and burnt. The cypress and palm trees lining the outside were singed and limp. Harris said the giant gator mouth was still potentially salvageable. She said officials would try to reopen the park as soon as possible, but it was unclear how quick that may be. They will have to devise another entrance for guests. "This park is like an old alligator. Gators fight, they get scarred up, they get beat up, they tear each other up, but they're resilient," Gatorland official Tim Williams said. "This park's been here for 57 years. We're not going anywhere. It's the alligator capital of the world. It's got a few scars and smudges on it, but we'll clean it up."
~ UPDATE: 11/08/06 ~
State Fire Marshal Det. Bill Newman just reported that a reptile heating pad in the snake exhibit at Gatorland caused the fire Monday that destroyed the attraction's main entrance, gift shop and other administrative offices. The fire was ruled accidental, Newman said, and based on evidence in the fire rubble was traced to the snake exhibit where two pythons died in the blaze reported at 5:55 a.m. Monday. One dwarf crocodile also was killed.
Newman said the fire raged out of control so quickly because the building was mostly made of wood and because of the amount of clothing and other fire fuel in the gift shop. "The debris pile was at least three to five feet high," Newman said of the scene. Orlando Sentinel