Highway 50 Revisited
Exploring one of the busiest, yet most overlooked, roadways in our region
Published: December 1, 2011
2009: Of the twelve most dangerous intersections in Orlando (which was named the most dangerous city for pedestrians by Transportation for America) traveled by performance artist Brian Feldman, five of them cross Colonial Drive: North Pine Hills Road, North Hiawassee Road, North Goldenrod Road, North Alafaya Trail, North Semoran Boulevard.
26205 E. Colonial Drive, Christmas
If you’ve ever driven the length of Colonial Drive, aka State Route 50 once you’re outside Orlando city limits, from Orlando to Titusville, you’ve seen Swampy, “the world’s largest gator.” He’s a 200-foot-long concrete behemoth that stands guard over an iconic bit of Floridiana that’s more than just the campy tourist attraction it appears to be from the outside.
Enter the gift shop and ticket counter through the mouth of the giant gator, and you’re instantly struck by the smell – that’s not a reptilian aroma that’s penetrating the air, it’s sulfur. The moat that surrounds this wildlife preserve is fed by a sulfur spring that keeps the water at a pretty constant 70-something degrees, perfect for the year-round cultivation of our state’s most infamous toothy beast.
Back in the 1960s, when Highway 50 was just a two-lane road and there wasn’t much in the way of development (much less sprawl) east of Orlando, gator farming was a booming trade in this area. Entrepreneur Hermon Brooks got in on the business in the late 1960s and selected this site for Brooks Alligator Farm, which raised gators for meat and hides. His curious endeavor quickly drew attention from people traveling back and forth to the coast from Central Florida. “He put out a sign that said ‘Brooks Alligator Farm,’ and people would stop and want to see these gators,” says Ramona Lashbrook, operations director at Jungle Adventures. “So he started leaving a coffee can out for people who stopped, so they could leave donations.”
Over time, the tourism aspect of the business began to take on a life of its own: In the early 1970s, Brooks opened Gator Jungle, a wildlife park that put commercially farmed gators as well as other wild animals on display for the public.
Though the gators still come from the Brooks’ farm (Herman Brooks’ two sons, Shane and Wayne, aka “Hoho,” run Brooks Brothers Alligator Farm next door to Jungle Adventures to this day), the business of Jungle Adventures these days is based on preservation, rescue and education, not breeding, farming and selling.
More than 200 gators, ranging from hatchlings less than two foot long, to a 30-year-old, 15-foot monster named Goliath, live in a swampy, duckweed-filled moat and in displays around the preserve. They share this space with a host of other beasts, both mundane and exotic: white-tailed deer, peacocks, coatamundis, Florida panthers. Many of the animals that call Jungle Adventures home are rescues turned over by Florida Fish and Wildlife authorities after being confiscated from neglectful owners or illegal situations. Take, for instance, Prada the Rhesus monkey, who was brought to the preserve after being confiscated in a cruelty case when it was discovered that he had been brutally beaten by his owner, or the pair of ring-tailed lemurs that landed at the park when their owners could no longer keep them. Other animals here on display were purchased at auction. When mom-and-pop zoos and attractions close, Jungle Adventures wildlife educator “Safari Todd” explains, the animals go up for sale to the highest bidder. Those not purchased for educational or conservation efforts often meet a cruel fate.