Donny Aldarelli, 28, educates and entertains audiences at Gatorland, while keeping a sharp eye on his reptilian performers.
Aldarelli has gotten up close and personal with thousands of gators during his six-year tenure as an alligator wrestler and trainer at Gatorland theme park near Kissimmee. “I get to put an alligator’s mouth under my face, and I can’t tell you how alive that makes you feel.”
A Central Florida resident since age 5, Aldarelli is an avid outdoorsman whose energetic storytelling makes him appear grander than his 5-foot-6-inch stature suggests. “I’ve lived within a five-mile radius of Gatorland pretty much my whole life,” he says, surrounded by ponds filled with hundreds of alligators (and a few crocodiles) in the family-owned park. “This was my childhood—growing up in areas like this.”
He performs in two of the park’s most popular attractions: the gator-jumping exhibition, where he dangles pieces of raw poultry over a pond of hungry gators; and the gator wrestling show, a 15-minute display where he pulls a gator tail-first out of the water, sits on its back, opens its jaws, and even puts it to sleep momentarily by rolling it onto its back.
“I spend hours and hours and hours with these gators. Some of them never calm down. Some of them are just like lightning; they’re hot all the time.”
“It’s entertainment, obviously, because we’re sitting on an alligator’s back, but a lot of it is education. A lot of it is settling myths.” One of the myths Aldarelli often hears is that you can escape an alligator in pursuit by running in a zigzag pattern. It doesn’t help, he says, adding that running in a straight line as fast as possible is the best approach.
Aldarelli loves his job: “I’m not a lawyer, I don’t get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or anything like that, but I feel that my life is whole.” He’s also well aware of the hazards: he‘s been bitten twice and points to scars on each of his hands.
“The one where it got me in the left hand was probably the only gator wrestling show I will never forget,” he says, recalling the run-in with a 7-foot male called No Name. The gator sank its teeth into Aldarelli’s thumb and palm, then clamped down. “It was so nerve-wracking. He didn’t just bite me, he held me. I was just sitting on him, talking to the guests and he broke out, came back and grabbed me, and he bit down again real hard, which hurt real bad.” After about two minutes of agony, Aldarelli was able to escape by pushing down along the rim of the gator’s teeth until it opened its jaws just enough for him to rip his bleeding hand out of its mouth.
The injuries have only increased his respect for the species. “You can’t tame them. They have good days; they have bad days.”
Aldarelli says he plans to work with gators until he gets too old and too slow to wrestle. “Unless I get my head ripped off,” he says, only half-joking.