Lion Country Safari
|Location||Loxahatchee, Florida, USA|
Lion Country Safari is a drive-through safari park located in Loxahatchee (near West Palm Beach), in Palm Beach County, Florida. Founded in 1967, it claims to be the first 'cageless zoo' in the United States.
In 2009, USA Travel Guide named Lion Country the 3rd best zoo in the nation. 
Lion Country Safari was founded in 1967 by a group of South African, American and British entrepreneurs who wished to provide a safari experience for families who would not normally be able to experience it. The park originally exhibited only lions.
In the beginning, the park had its own 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railroad, the Everglade Express. This attraction was eventually closed and the Crown Metal Products 4-4-0 locomotive was put on static display. Later, the locomotive was donated to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami before finally being bought and fully restored by the Veterans Memorial Railroad, located in Bristol, Florida's Veterans Memorial Park. It runs on that railroad to this day.
The original South Florida park is the only one remaining in operation. Lion Country Safari previously operated parks in Irvine, California (1970–1984); Grand Prairie, Texas (1971–1992); Stockbridge, Georgia; Mason, Ohio (1974–1993) and Doswell, Virginia (1974–1993); all of them subsequently closed.
The original park in Florida consists of over 1,000 animals, kept in large fenced areas with approximately 5 miles of paved roadway running throughout.
Visitors who purchase a ticket enter the park in their own vehicle, driving slowly at their own pace, and view the animals while listening to a recorded narration on audiotape or CD. Some animals, such as giraffes, rhinoceroses, and zebras, are allowed to roam freely, even crossing the road in front of vehicles. Others, such as lions or chimpanzees, are segregated behind fences or water barriers.
Visitors are warned to drive slowly and carefully, to avoid stopping too close to animals, and not to open their car doors or windows. The lions, whose ability to roam freely with cars was one of the parks original attractions, were separated from visitors by a fence around the road in 2005, due to visitors ignoring warnings and opening their car doors.
A unique aspect of Lion Country Safari is the chimpanzee exhibit. The chimps live on an island system where they move to a different island every day, replicating their natural nomadic lifestyle. The chimps live in complex social groups, as they would in the wild. Because of this, Lion Country Safari has been useful to those interested in behavioral studies of chimps. As of 2012, chimpanzees living at Lion Country Safari include "Little Mama," one of the oldest chimpanzees in captivity, born in 1938. Lion Country Safari also serves as a retirement facility for chimpanzees who were once used in research laboratories and entertainment.
After visitors have driven through the park, they can visit Safari World, a theme park with some zoo exhibits, and amusement park fare such as a Ferris wheel, a petting zoo, a small water park, and a giraffe-feeding exhibit. Food is available at Lion Country Safari's main restaurant.
- Lion Country Safari plays a major role in Frederick Buechner's novel Lion Country.
- The park was referenced in The Simpsons episode "Old Money" when the family takes a trip to Discount Lion Safari.
Other parks bearing the Lion Country Safari name
Another drive-through zoo known as Lion Country Safari existed in Irvine, California until 1984. The California park was designed by R. Duell & Associates (the same firm that designed Six Flags Magic Mountain). Lion Country was founded and headed up by South African CEO Harry Shuster of United Leisure in 1968 and the first park opened in Florida in 1969. The second park in California opened in June 1970.
In 1982, two years prior to closing the park, United Leisure opened a summer day camp, Camp Frasier, to hopefully help offset the effects of low attendance. Meanwhile, there was still no budget for maintaining the park, and its deteriorating attractions meant the park's future was doomed. In 1984, with dwindled attendance and decrepit conditions, the park closed. In 1982, during the final years of the park, a long bitter battle began between Shuster and the Irvine Company.
The Irvine Company decided to renegotiate the 28 year lease on the land (which began in 1968), trying to take back control as nearby property values increased and the park was proving to be a financial liability. Harry Shuster then became involved in the bitter and excruciating legal tussle, which lasted until 1997, when they finally reached a settlement. During the ongoing legal maneuverings, Shuster threatened to 'tear it all down' -- including Irvine Meadows (built on a sublease agreement with U.L., now Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre), Wild Rivers, and the day camp. His reasoning was, "I built all this on a firm 28 year lease agreement; why should the Irvine Company be allowed to take it from me just because they want it back?"
A portion of the park's entertainment area was converted into the current water park Wild Rivers in 1986-87. The remaining park land was left as Camp Frasier, which continued until 1997, when it became Camp James. During the years of Camp Frasier, the drive through reserve was used for horseback riding, archery, ATC, ATV riding and hiking. Lion Country was originally in the city limits of Laguna Hills.
The Zambezi River Boat Ride was initially designed to be part aviary. After passing through a tunnel about 3/4 of the way along the river course, the boats would enter a fully netted area where exotic birds could fly freely. The boat would then exit the netted area through another tunnel about 100 feet before the end of the ride. Due to budget limitations and potential problems that would ensue from keeping the birds inside, that idea was dropped and it was to be a basic boat ride. The ride was designed to be landscaped in order to create the effect of different micro-environments, such as the rain forest and African plains, etc.
However, the original boats were scrapped in the late 1970s and early 1980s, replaced with rustic African wooden barges that were built upon huge styrofoam blocks so they would not sink as they deteriorated. (The park was starting to fall apart by then due to low maintenance caused by poor attendance.) One of the original metal Zambezi Boats from 1970 was saved and affixed in the concrete paving as a decoration in the Wild Rivers outdoor eating and recreation areas between the wave pools and the locker rooms.
An aging circus lion from Mexico, who was ill, was given to the Irvine facility. He sired quite a few litters of lion cubs, mothered by several lionesses. Named "Frasier," he became a major attraction to the site. In 1971, Lion Country tried to capitalize on their new star, and a movie was made called "Frasier the Sensuous Lion." T-shirts, watches, and other souvenirs were sold featuring Frasier until 1972, when he died and was buried on top of the hills behind the Safari. Afterward, attendance continued to decline, and negative incidents occurred at the Safari Park.
On a February night in 1978, Bubbles, a hippopotamus, managed to burrow under her fence, squeeze past a barricade and lumber away from her pen. She found a marshy drainage pit in the hills behind the safari and settled in for a standoff with park rangers, rarely showing much more than her nostrils above the water line. Crowds gathered. Television cameras arrived. Soon, even Johnny Carson was having a laugh at the wayward hippo in Orange County.
Bubbles emerged from her watery hideout a few days into her escape, and was greeted with a tranquilizer dart. She crumpled to the ground. Three rangers approached, and one tapped her with a wooden pole."Bubbles roused with a mighty snort," the Orange County Register newspaper reported, "and promptly treed two rangers and sent the third scampering." Bubbles flicked her tail and rumbled back into the pond."
For 19 days, Bubbles wallowed in her pond as news helicopters clattered overhead and highway patrol officers directed traffic on nearby roads. She refused to budge even when rangers baited a huge net with her favorite food, alfalfa. And then, as night fell on her 19th day of freedom, Bubbles pulled herself out of the shallows and wandered up a nearby hill. A ranger approached her in the dark and shot her with two tranquilizer darts. She staggered for a few more steps before her knees gave out and she collapsed.
A veterinarian arrived and gave her a dose of a potent calming drug. The cheering and backslapping of her capture soon turned to disbelief and then tears as the park rangers realized that Bubbles had stopped breathing. One of the rangers reached down and tried to close her eyes, then covered her body with a blanket. The official story from Lion Country Safari has always been that Bubbles fell in an awkward position on the hill, and her heavy internal organs pressed against her lungs, suffocating her. But the lead ranger that night, Steve Clark, has long maintained that it was the veterinarian's drug - administered needlessly and carelessly, he says - that killed Bubbles. A heavy-duty earthmover carried Bubbles back to Lion Country Safari, where an necropsy found she had been pregnant with her second calf.
An Asian elephant, Misty, broke free from her chains at Lion Country Safari following a concert at the neighboring amphitheater on July 24, 1983. Head game warden Lee Keaton was apparently attempting to put a chain around the elephant’s leg when she turned on him, crushing his skull and killing him instantly. Misty had attacked a handler, David Wilson, just three weeks earlier. The handler survived. After Keaton was killed, Misty managed to run off the property, causing an evacuation of a nearby swap meet and a traffic jam on nearby I-405.
Misty was loose for three hours before being recaptured. At the time the elephant was owned by Gentle Jungle, a company that supplied animals for movies and television. After the accident Misty was absorbed by the circus industry until 1988 when she was purchased by the Hawthorn Corporation. Misty maintained her reputation as a dangerous elephant until the day a sanctuary staff took custody of her from the Hawthorn Corporation. Her parting shot was to strike John Cuneo, owner of the Hawthorn Corporation, across the chest with her trunk as he attempted to make her stretch out on her sternum so he could remove her chains. She is now living at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.
Also, several lions who killed hoofed animals had to be quarantined in a fenced section of the park. Monkeys reportedly ripped the rubber bumper stripping off car doors and jumped on hoods. Insurance claims were skyrocketing. The park was finally shut down in the summer of 1984, and all of the animals were sold and relocated. As of August 2010, the Irvine Company still has not done anything with the land, except to re-grade what was once the drive-through preserve and designate parcels for nurseries to store plants and large specimen trees.
As of April 2013, much of the property has been developed & a large part of it is now the site of Los Olivos Apartment Village. Upon completion in late 2014, the nearly 100-acre community will include 1,750 apartments.
Kings Dominion, located in the town of Doswell, Virginia (just north of Richmond), operated a similar attraction called Lion Country Safari from 1974 before the park's opening in 1975 through the fall of 1993.
Grand Prairie, Texas
Another Lion Country Safari operated in Grand Prairie (a suburb of Dallas) between 1971-1992. The park (located near what is now Lone Star Park) would often close during spring due to flooding (its location was adjacent to the Trinity River). The property remains undeveloped as of 2013 due to being in a floodplain.
- McDaniel, Sharon. "The mane attraction" The Palm Beach Post, January 6, 2006.
- Gilken, Rochelle E.B. "At Lion Country, cats cut off from cars", Palm Beach Post, December 29, 2005.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lion Country Safari.|
- Official website
- Memories of Lion Country Safari, Irvine, CA
- Lion Country Safari on Modern Day Ruins