ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — At Gatorland, thousands of alligators accustom to their meals falling from the sky courtesy of paying park guests are now being fed with wheelbarrows full of meat, said CEO and President Mark McHugh.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, McHugh said the park is operating with a skeleton crew to care for its critters, while finding new ways to entertain the public from afar and keep up the facilities while the park is closed.
While the park is shut, McHugh said the company made the decision to keep paying its 190 employees their full wages for the first two weeks of the closure and 80% after that until the park can reopen.
“Our whole goal here is to try to keep our employees with their heads above water and the company above water,” he said.
A strong string of record-breaking tourism business in recent years, he said, allowed the company to store up financial resources it needs to keep both afloat.
“We are nothing without our employees, so we’re going to take care of them,” he said.
McHugh said the company is in a place that where it can keep running with its small crew on-site while paying those who are sheltering in place at home for a least a few months, when hopefully the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak have waned.
“I don’t lose sleep over the money. I lose sleep on my people getting sick,” McHugh said. “That’s what keeps me up at night ... worrying that my people will stay healthy.”
For those still showing up for work, he said the park is taking necessary social distancing and disinfecting precautions.
McHugh said the alligators don’t seem to notice the lack of people in the park, minus the fact that their food isn’t being delivered by seemingly falling out of the sky. On the other hand, he said the park’s birds and mammals are noticing a shift.
McHugh said they start “talking” when they see workers nearby.
“They’re used to seeing a couple thousand people a day,” he said.
Instead of thousands of new people each day, he said the workers are getting a chance to play and interact with the petting zoo animals in a way they’re not usually afforded on a day-to-day basis.
“We’re feeding them and playing with the ones you can play with,” McHugh said. “We’re having a ball every day without the park open. Now we can just spend time with them and really play with them and love on them.”
McHugh said they’re showcasing that fun on their Gatorland Facebook page and YouTube channels.
At 10 a.m. every day Monday through Saturday, staff members are going live on their Facebook page to entertain children who are now schooling from home. The series is called “School of Croc.”
A 3 p.m. they move over to YouTube with content geared toward a more mature channel with its “Later Gator Live” series. McHugh said that’s where the action is.
“Both of them have really taken off,” McHugh said. “We want to be there for the people who are sheltering in place giving them something to look forward to every day.”
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