The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park will mark its 125th anniversary this year by taking a look back as well as a leap ahead with the installation of a new attraction.
Oasis on the Nile is under construction and has a targeted opening of mid-March. The exhibit will encompass 8,000 square feet of the park’s 7 acres with a boardwalk built around a pool showcasing four 12-foot Nile crocodiles imported from Africa (the convoluted journey that brought them here is a story in itself). A raised platform overlooking the display will link into the zip line which crisscrosses the park.
“It will be the biggest expansion we’ve had in awhile,” said John Brueggen, the zoo’s director for the last 18 years.
The new exhibit is just an example of how one of Florida’s oldest attractions has managed to stay fresh all these years, and it isn’t technology and flashy interactive displays but the animals themselves that are the main attraction.
“People will look up from their cell phones and see a 16-foot crocodile, their jaw drops and they don’t look down at their phone again,” said Brueggen. “It’s that impressive.”
The Oasis of the Nile project, with a $100,000 budget, will be a permanent display on the western side of the park featuring feeding shows, bi-level crocodile viewing and Egyptian artifacts. Some of the ancient art — busts of pharaohs and statues of coiling snakes —Brueggen has amassed himself over the last year as planning for the Oasis moved forward.
Constantly reinvesting in the park and updating displays has helped the Alligator Farm maintain its status as one of the biggest tourist attractions in the region, if not the state, and it definitely boosts the number of local residents who visit.
“I’ll see people in Publix and they’ll say to me, ‘I haven’t been there in 12 years.’ And I say, ‘But in 12 years we’ve changed a lot about the park,’” Brueggen said.
The zoo sees an average of 200,000 visitors annually.
The park began in 1893 as part of a little-known attraction called the Burning Springs Museum on St. Augustine Beach, the last stop of a railway running through Anastasia Island.
The attraction was run by St. Augustine resident Everett Whitney who, according to Brueggen, “captured local gators and charged people to see them while they were waiting for their train back.” In the 1920s, he added ostriches — but they did not last very long.
In 1937, the park changed owners as well as locations, moving just across State Route A1A from the beachside, bringing with them Shelly the tortoise who was acquired by the Alligator Farm in the 1920s.
Over the years, the zoo has expanded to include exotic monkeys, birds and other reptiles, such as its Komodo dragon display. It also hosts educational programs and is involved in research and conservation efforts.
For the grand opening of the new Oasis of the Nile, the Alligator Farm will also pay homage to its past by posting a display of historical photos, signage and kitschy memorabilia like souvenirs the park sold through the years.