A Place in Florida – Where the Lion Sleeps Tonight

A Place in Florida – Where the Lion Sleeps Tonight

There’s a place in Florida where, if you like wild animals, you can get up close and personal with some of the world’s wildest animals without ever leaving your car.

There’s the slobbering giraffe with the long tongue – but ever so cute!

There’s the herd of zebras trying to hitch a ride.

There’s the ostriches pecking at your car window. Don’t roll the window down – you might lose a valuable piece of your real estate!

This place in Florida, Lion Country Safari, is so popular that hundreds of thousands of people have mingled with these animals in the wild since it was established in 1967.

This isn’t your neighborhood zoo. In fact, some people wouldn’t call it a zoo at all, although you’ll see others ranking it as the nation’s third best ‘zoo’. As a reporter, my job is not to define what is ‘best’, nor, for that matter, what is a ‘zoo’.

What Lion Country Safari is is just what its creators wanted: A place in Florida where ordinary people could experience the excitement of seeing the same wild animals they would see if they could provide to go to an African game park. Which, as we all know, most of us can’t.

Those creators – a group of South African and British entrepreneurs – were the first to treat Americans who love wild animals to a new concept: The excursion-by ‘cageless zoo’.

The success of their idea has been proved by tourists and local folks alike who keep coming back for more – and by the dozens of copycats across the country. Think San Diego Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Columbus Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, Cincinnati, Phoenix Zoo and many others.

You’ll hear talk that this place in Florida was the nation’s first ‘cageless zoo’. It wasn’t. Back in 1928, the Detroit Zoo laid claim to that. But it’s clear that the idea of a excursion-by park with 1,000 wild animals making faces at ‘caged’ people helped to revolutionize zoo and wildlife management in this country.

The 600-acre Lion Country Safari is in Loxahatchee (meaning Turtle River, some say), which was, back in 1967, in the middle of nowhere in western Palm Beach County. There was plenty of land, plenty of tourists and plenty of good weather. Who wants a lion in their backyard, anyway?

At first, there were just lions – lots of them – roaming free. Over the years – and this is a clue to the allurement’s success – the lions have been joined not only by giraffes, zebras and ostriches, but also by white rhinos, chimps, African elephants, hippos, alpacas, alligators and gazelles – to name just a few species from the wild.

By 2005, the lion population had been thinned to adjust to their roommates. But those remaining, for at any rate reason, got a little too frisky for the safety of tourists on the five-mile ride by their backyard. So now they’re behind a fence along the road – nevertheless up close, but not so personal.

The fence, they say, wasn’t the lions’ fault. The ‘caged’ people kept opening their car doors. Despite warnings.

The park has strict rules about vehicles. No convertibles, no pets inside your means, no broken windows on your means, no open windows during the excursion-by, no towed vehicles, nothing in your truck bed, etc. But, in most situations, rentals are obtainable.

Can’t get enough of the wild animals on the excursion-by? Hey, go again. You can go as many times as you like on your one ticket.

Tired of that? There’s more – a lot more – another clue to the allurement’s success: Safari World, a theme park with zoo displays and entertainment park fare such as a Ferris wheel: a petting zoo, a small water park, animal theater presentations, petting zoo, character walk, aviaries, pontoon boat tour, paddle boats, an animal-themed carousel, miniature golf and picnic area. And a place where, yes, you can satisfy the (gross) slobbering giraffes.

You hungry? Lunch (quasi fast food) or dinner (better) is obtainable in the park’s two restaurants. Tired? Stay overnight in one of its 200-plus campsites or cabins.

It’s obvious that people like this place in Florida, despite flops in other places in America where its creators tried to extend their successes. More than 400,000 people visit Florida’s Lion Country Safari every year.

When the park opened in 1967, cars lined up for miles to get into the park, whose timing for opening day could not have been better. The song ‘Born Free’ — chronicling the raising of an African lion cub, Elsa the Lioness, until she grew up and could be set free — had just won an Academy Award. As one of the decade’s most popular songs, it provided the “subliminal hook” for the music for the phenomenally successful movie ‘Star Wars’ – music that also won an Academy Award in 1977.

At this place in Florida, you won’t see Elsa. You probably won’t see lion cubs. But you will see lions, because this is where ‘the lion sleeps tonight’ – another famous phrase from another famous song, ‘Wimoweh’, from another earlier time

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