Africa U.S.A. Park
Africa USA was an African wildlife tourist attraction that was open from 1953 until 1961. The park was located in Boca Raton, Florida on 300 acres (1.2 km2) of land near U.S. 1. Africa USA was truly a theme park before its time, with animals allowed to roam free. Even though Disney's Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World was hailed as a new concept, the idea had existed some 45 years prior in South Florida. Walt Disney was a frequent visitor to Africa USA and considered purchasing it. In fact, Africa USA was chosen over Disneyland to grace the cover of the August 1, 1960 issue of LIFE Magazine.
Africa USA was built by John P. Pedersen. Pedersen always dreamed of building a wild animal park in Florida, together with his wife Lillian and children Jack and Shirley.
In the 1950s, Pedersen made his dream reality. As Jack and mother Lillian were driving in Boca Raton, Florida they came across some grasslands dotted with pine trees and sabal palmetto that looked like an African savannah. Pedersen looked at the land and the tiny town of Boca Raton and commented "This is the deadest town I have ever seen. I am going to wake up this town." Pedersen purchased the 300 acres (1.2 km2) in 1950 from the City of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County Commission.
Safari in Africa
Jack Pedersen flew to British East Africa to begin the process of animal collection. Working with Dr. Cecil Cade and his son Richard, Jack spent seven months in Africa collecting rare Grevy's zebra, ostrich, cranes, wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle. Special permission was granted to capture the Grevy's zebra as they are almost extinct in the wild. Jack endured many illnesses while in Africa including malaria and tick fever. The animals were loaded onto the Farrell Lines freighter African Planet as a modern day "Noah's Ark." The ship left the port of Mombassa and sailed nine weeks across the Atlantic to Port Everglades, Florida.
Florida Senator George Smathers was instrumental in getting permission for the animals to arrive at Port Everglades. It was the largest shipment of animals ever to leave Africa aboard one ship. The crates that held the ostrich had to be constantly rebuilt to allow for the fast-growing creatures. The unloading of the animals was quite a media event and the animals were transported to their new home in Boca Raton.
On March 10, 1953 Africa USA opened its doors to the public. The admission to the gardens areas was free, and the Jungle Train Tour was 95 cents. Many major newspapers did full-page write-ups because of the uniqueness of the park – a zoo with no cages where the visitors could safely interact with the animals.
Many animals were very popular at Africa USA. The cheetahs Mojah and Mbili, the giraffes Moneybags and Champ, but above all Princess Margaret. Margaret was a baby chimpanzee adopted by the Pedersen family and raised in their home like a child. Margaret was most famous for kissing people. Pedersen trained her to do this by first having her kiss pictures in magazines. She appeared many times on the Jack Paar show. She learned her cue – "Kiss the pretty lady" and Margaret would kiss the women first. During the day, Margaret had her own "house" in the Africa USA administration building. Another famous celebrity who got her start at Africa USA was the pinup queen Bettie Page. Her most famous photo shoot with the cheetahs Mojah and Mbili is idolized even today.
The park's theme song was The Four Lads' version of "Skokiaan" , a 1954 popular tune written by Rhodesian musician August Musarurwa. The song was played all day long in the parking lot as guests arrived and was sold in the gift shop.
As the 1950s continued, Africa USA became more and more popular as a tourist attraction with 300,000 visitors a year. John Pedersen had succeeded in putting Boca Raton on the map. Housing developments such as Boca Isles began to spring up around the Africa USA property. Many residents complained about the noise and traffic to which Africa USA contributed. Africa USA was sold and closed its doors on September 4, 1961. The animals were auctioned to zoos around the country. Pedersen was 65 years old at the time and tired of fighting city hall. The Africa USA era had come to an end. The Pedersens retired to Lake Worth. Lillian Pedersen died in 1984 but John Pedersen reached the age of 98.
The property that was Africa USA is now the Camino Gardens development. Much of the lagoon is intact with the geyser base still visible. A plaque celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Africa USA opening is displayed at the lagoon in the Camino Gardens development.
- Africa U.S.A., California (California park not affiliated with the original Africa U.S.A.)
- "Theme song". Africa USA. Retrieved October 19, 2014.