It was always Francene DePrez Rainey’s dream to have alligators.
A little more than five years ago, fate allowed Rainey and her husband, “Diamond Don” Rainey, to take over a gator farm. Today, East Texans can visit the couple’s gator pit in Jefferson and observe a feeding, while taking in a little bit of local history at the same time.
The Raineys own and operate Diamond Don RV Park and Event Center, as well as the Historic Jefferson Railway. Travelers aboard the railway experience make a special stop at the Diamond Don Gator Pit while also taking in the beauty of the Big Cypress Bayou.
“It’s a really unique experience for families and for children,” said Francene DePrez Rainey. “They get to learn the history of Jefferson and they get to see gators in a safe environment.”
The Historic Jefferson Railway departs at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. each Saturday from the Depot at 400 East Austin Street in downtown Jefferson. During the approximately 45-minute train ride, a narrator provides a history of Jefferson while travelers on the antique locomotive take in the Big Cypress Bayou.
“The bayou is beautiful, and it makes for a wonderful train ride. Even on really hot days, it’s still a nice ride because it’s mostly shaded,” Rainey said.
About halfway through the open-air ride, the train makes a stop at Diamond Don’s Gator Pit, a 30,000-square-foot natural enclosure that the couple built several years ago to house their gators.
The Raineys acquired several alligators in fall 2014 from Ron Gibbs, who offers swamp tours at Caddo Lake. Gibbs previously owned and operated Captain Ron’s Gator Park, Petting Zoo and Gardens at his home in Uncertain.
Gibbs operated the gator park at his home until his insurance was going to be canceled because of it. At that time, he began negotiating with the Raineys to take it over.
Don Rainey built the enclosure on his property, taking almost a year to complete it, Francene DePrez Rainey said. Over the years, the Raineys have acquired seven alligators. All have been “nuisance alligators,” Rainey said, donated to them by game wardens or residents who have found an unwanted gator on their property.
The seven alligators, which range in size, have access to freshwater, but come out for feedings.
“We allow people to line up along the fence to take pictures, and watch a feeding,” she said.
The alligators eat natural chicken and fish. During the public feeding, chicken is placed on a line and the alligators jump up from the water to catch it, she said.
“It’s a sight. It’s really neat to see,” Rainey said.
After watching the feeding, travelers get back on board the train and return through the Big Cypress Bayou to the downtown depot.
The Historic Jefferson Railway is currently operating at 50 percent capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rainey said. Sanitation has increased at the depot, and sanitary wipes are available to guests, she said. Additionally, the train is fully sanitized between the rides, she added.
Tickets to the Historic Jefferson Railway train ride are $12, plus tax. Children 6 and under can ride for free. For more information, visit diamonddonempire.com.
Jefferson isn’t the only place to get up close and personal with alligators this summer.
Just across the border in Greenwood, Louisiana, Gators and Friends offers an exotic animal petting zoo and adventure park complete with gators.
At Gators and Friends, visitors can observe more than 150 alligators at the park and watch a daily feeding where, like Jefferson’s show, alligators leap from the water. Gators and Friends also includes an exotic petting zoo with more than 30 kinds of animals. It also features an approximately one-hour zipline course through the woods above the exotic animals.
Gators and Friends is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday at 11441 U.S. 80 in Greenwood, La. Admission is $9.50 for adults and children 13 and older; it is $6.95 for children ages 3-12. There are additional prices for the ziplines, as well as on-site pony rides and feed cups to feed the animals. For more information, visit gatorsandfriends.com.
Meanwhile, to the west in Grand Saline, East Texas Zoo and Gator Park has dozens of gators available for viewing and offers daily feedings. Additionally, the park features other animals such as monkeys, lemurs and exotic cats. A barnyard allows visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with various animals, including goats, cows and pigs.
East Texas Zoo and Gator Park is located at 9515 FM 1255 in Grand Saline. Admission is $12 per person; children 2 and under are free. There are additional fees for certain attractions. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.easttexaszooandgator.com.