I love turtles, so I’ll put that out front and center when I say that Reptile Gardens (8955 S. Hwy. 16, 605/342-5873 or 800/335-0275, www.reptilegardens.com , Memorial Day–Labor Day daily 8 a.m.–7 p.m., Apr. 1–Memorial Day and Labor Day–Oct. 31 daily 9 a.m.–4 p.m., Nov.–Dec. hours vary, closed Jan.–Mar., adult $11–15, child $7–8) is my pick for best attraction in the hills. This assessment is seconded by both the Midwest Travel Writers Association and USA Today, which called it one of the top 10 roadside attraction in the United States.
The grounds of Reptile Gardens include a large gift shop, the Sky Dome, an outdoor stage, and several outdoor exhibit areas, including an area for raptors and another for crocodiles.
From Labor Day to Memorial Day, three rotating presentations are given throughout the day at the exhibit areas. Wild Wings is a presentation on raptors and other birds.
The Crocodilian Show is an exciting look at the differences between alligators, crocodiles, and caimans, presented by the keeper as he’s wading among them, demonstrating their strength, and their teeth, when they are fed.
The third show is all about snakes. You can see a mangrove, a Burmese python, cottonmouth, cobra, and prairie rattlesnake up close as the handler talks about their unique characteristics.
All of the shows are highly interactive, humorous and fact filled. The presentations rotate so that you can wander from one to another while you are there. Also roaming the grounds during the summer are the giant tortoises, a personal favorite.
The Sky Dome is landscaped and temperature controlled to create two separate environments: a desert and a tropical jungle. Lizards and frogs hop freely about the lush tropical plants and finches fly throughout the dome. In the desert zone, cactus and other succulents are planted, and the Safari room of the dome is filled with orchids and other colorful flowes. Large parrots, macaws, and pythons complete the display. The Sky Dome also houses some of the rarest snakes in the world, and there are more species of reptiles at Reptile Gardens than at any other place in the world.
Reptile Gardens opened its doors in 1937, the brainchild of the somewhat nutty Earl Brocklesby (who would surprise visitors by removing his hat to display a coiled up rattlesnake on his head!). Earl passed away in 1993, but the gardens remain family owned and operated to this day.