In decades past, if you wanted to see wild animals in their natural habitat, free from the iron-barred cages of your local zoo, you had to travel to an exotic location such as Africa. Then a group of British and African entrepreneurs had a grand idea; a drive-through zoo (hey, it worked for the fast food industry)! What could be more fun than to sit in the comfort of your air-conditioned car and see man eating-lions, graceful giraffes, and cantankerous rhinos through the relative safety of your automobile windshield?
Lion Country Safari first opened in Loxahatchee, Florida in 1967 as the world’s first cage-less zoo. In 1970, the Southern California version opened in the city of Irvine, and later versions opened in Texas, Georgia, and Ohio. Each provided miles of road that visitors could drive along, affording them close-up views of animals such as lions, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, ostriches and gazelles, all free to roam in their respective areas. Sometimes the animals could be seen lazily slumbering in the grass. Other times, the animals preferred a more interactive experience with the guests; blocking roadways, removing car antennas, or licking their lips in eager anticipation for the tourist that might ignore the warnings and roll their window down or even … open their door!
Lion Country Safari started out as strictly a drive-through attraction, but later added rides, shows, and a petting zoo to help boost attendance. The California park was also once home to a beloved lion by the name of Frazier. It seemed that Frazier, despite his old age, was rather amorous with the ladies. He managed to sire 33 cubs during his two-year residence, creating quite the media stir, and became somewhat of a local folk hero until he eventually passed away in 1972.
Due to declining attendance, most of the Lion Country Safari locations were closed in 1984. The west-coast park was replaced with a water park called “Raging Waters.” A day camp for children also resides on the land. Once affectionately known as “Camp Frazier,” it was recently renamed “Camp James.” (Sorry, big guy.)
Sadly, Florida’s Lion Country Safari is the only park that remains open today. Parks such as San Diego’s Wild Animal Park and Disney’s Animal Adventure have stepped in to fill the void. Still, neither offers the unique thrill of a wild animal staring menacingly at you through your own windshield, while it fantasizes about turning your family car into a convertible, and you into its dinner. That pulse-raising experience is what made the place so much fun.
If you have memories of visiting this unique wildlife park as a child, we welcome them in our comments section, as we remember this lost, but never-forgotten, tourist destination.