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Gatorland – Shell Shack


Rating: * * * +
Type: Walk-by exhibit with occasional opportunities for interaction
Time: Continuous viewing, or scheduled times as posted
Kelly says: Low-key fun for families with small fry

Most of the traffic seems to flow through the right half of Alligator Alley, but to the left lie a few treasures worth seeking out. Some of the more impressive inhabitants dwell in an unassuming little enclosure, with a small shed helpfully labeled “Shell Shack.” This spot is the home of three Aldabara tortoises, mammoth creatures that range from 500 to 550 pounds apiece. The species comes from an island off the coast of Africa, though these particular tortoises retired here from Busch Gardens. The individuals on display are each over 90 years old, and have a life expectancy of over 150 years. While they’re striking enough just to look at from outside the enclosure, an occasional “Meet the Keeper” event, with times helpfully announced on a whiteboard near the shack, affords an opportunity to get closer to these gentle giants.

 

For a $5 fee, the keeper supplies children with a few quartered carrots skewered on long wands, to permit kiddies to feed the tortoises without getting their fingers too close to their powerful beaks. This seemed an excellent interaction for young children in particular; it was quiet, low-key, and the tortoises, while impressive (and often more than thigh-high to a parent) are slow-moving and so less likely to spook the little ones. Toddlers here looked both more at ease and more excited at the chance to feed and walk around a giant tortoise than the mostly stunned-looking tots getting their photos taken in the gator-wrestling ring. As an added bonus, one parent per child is permitted to enter the enclosure for free, for a better photo opportunity.

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