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LAKELAND — Blinky the Alligator is returning to Lakeland, but this time at Bonnett Springs Park where he will be reincarnated as a 100-foot-long, interactive jungle gym with lights and sounds and a slide for a tail.
“There’s a certain fascination about scale,” said the alligator’s designer, local architect Michael Furr. “We wanted to do something that was fun and interactive and played to kids’ imaginations.”
The city’s favorite reptile and mascot was once a fixture of Lake Mirror and could often be seen sunning his massive 13-foot, 600-pound body on a concrete plank that extended into the lake’s center or, more famously, taking a leisurely and harmless stroll through restaurant parking lots and along downtown streets.
But as Cinnamon Bair wrote in a 2003 Ledger article, “it was Blinky’s disarming friendliness — and ferocious potential — that proved his undoing.”
After a photo of a man kissing Blinky’s snout appeared in the paper and word of children feeding him marshmallows reached state wildlife officials, they demanded the city either fence off the lake or remove him. Because a chain-link fence seemed tacky and a concrete barrier would have cost $1 million, the city commission sadly voted to send Blinky away.
In early 1979, Blinky was shipped off to a wildlife park in Homosassa Springs, where he was killed weeks later by a 1,000-pound bull crocodile that Blinky wouldn’t stop pestering.
Now the developers of Bonnett Springs Park, set to open its first phase next year, are bringing Blinky back in a larger-than-life way.
The giant Blinky jungle gym is planned for the park’s design yard at the entrance to the new 40,000-square-foot Children’s Museum. Blinky will have interactive teeth that will light up in different colors and play sounds when children — or children at heart — step on them. There will be other surprises, too, that Furr wants children to discover on their own.
Furr said Kerry Falwell, executive director at Explorations V Children’s Museum in downtown Lakeland, came to him and said she had a vision of a giant alligator that kids could play on. She didn’t grow up here and so didn’t know the legend of Blinky. But Furr remembers Blinky wandering through downtown when he first moved here in 1972.
“Downtown was dead, so Blinky could walk around the streets without any problem,” he said.
Furr’s design was partially inspired by Sue the T-Rex at The Fields Museum in Chicago, where his daughter, Allyson, lives. Allyson and her siblings, Mary Michelle and Stephen, grew up in Lakeland and enjoyed all the city had to offer.
If Furr’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he designed the popular Common Grounds Park, an inclusive playground designed for children of all abilities.
“I’d like to have a legacy for our kids, but more important for all kids and those who weren’t as lucky as ours have been,” Furr said. “I just know what a difference that can make for kids, to have a facility like that and people who care.”