8 top US wildlife safari parks
Monday, April 24, 2017
If an African safari is on your travel bucket list, but not within your budget, don't despair. Consider an American safari. Across the country, commercial safari parks are bringing wildlife viewing much closer to home — and at a fraction of the cost.
It's possible at some parks to see lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, giraffes and other exotic beasts roaming vast grasslands from an open-air Jeep, truck or tram. At other parks you can do a drive-through safari in your own car or join a walk-through safari that offers in-your-face interaction with animals from around the world.
So before you decide to raid your life savings for a plane ticket to Nairobi, here are eight popular domestic parks offering prime wildlife viewing opportunities at a cost most can afford.
1. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
A satellite facility of the world famous San Diego Zoo, this sprawling 1,800-acre park, 45 minutes northeast of San Diego, features nearly 3,000 free-ranging wild and endangered animals from around the world. A theme park atmosphere prevails here with eight different safari experiences, educational shows and even overnight camping available.
But be prepared for sticker shock: Adult admission is $52, and there are plenty of add-ons if you want to do more than the basic African Tram.
2. Safari West
Santa Rosa, California
They call it the "Sonoma Serengeti." And who would ever guess that you'd find lions, tigers and giraffes roaming about in the heart of California Wine Country?
Just an hour northeast of San Francisco, this 400-acre reserve is home to more than 900 exotic mammals and birds representing about 100 species. Most guests join the entertaining and educational three-hour Classic Safari (starting at $80) aboard tall open-air trucks for an experience aimed at promoting wildlife advocacy and conservation. Spending the night in an African-style elevated tent is also an option.
3. Out of Africa Wildlife Park
Camp Verde, Arizona
The motto at this family-friendly park 30 minutes south of Sedona is "Call us wild. Call us crazy. Just don't call us a zoo." Nestled on 100-plus acres of rolling hills and valleys that strike quite a resemblance to a South African veldt, Out of Africa maintains hundreds of exotic mammals, birds and reptiles from all over the world.
Visitors can climb aboard an open-air bus for an African Bush Safari (included in the reasonable $32.95 admission) to observe many of the park's critters or take in one of a half dozen included wildlife shows. There's a Giant Snake Show, the Predator Feed and the popular Tiger Splash, featuring Siberian and Bengal tigers interacting in a predator-and-play relationship romping and splashing in a large pool as they play with their caretakers.
4. Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari
Part of the highly acclaimed Omaha Zoo, the safari park is actually located in Ashland, 30 miles southwest of Omaha. It features a series of wildlife venues that visitors can either drive or walk through.
The 50-acre Elk Prairie is roamed by a herd of 70 American elk; Crane Meadows is 13 acres of marsh and sandbar that 24 sandhill cranes and four trumpeter swans call home; Bison Plains is a 40-acre reserve claimed by the park's herd of American bison, and Wolf Canyon is home to six gray wolves. The Eagle Aviary houses four bald eagles and, just for the youngsters, there's a hands-on-corral where kids can interact with farm animals including pygmy goats, pigs and chickens.
The park is open daily April-October for a nominal admission fee of $7.50.
5. Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Glen Rose, Texas
Tourism is secondary to the main mission of this 1,800-acre parcel of rolling hills, forests and grassy plains located 70 miles southwest of Dallas. Founded in the 1970s by Tom Mantzel, a Fort Worth oilman with a passion for exotic animals, Fossil Rim is dedicated to serving as an endangered species research, conservation and propagation center.
More than 1,100 animals comprising nearly 60 species roam freely — and they include many of the world's most endangered critters, such as the white rhino, Przewalski's horse, scimitar oryx, cheetah and Grevy's zebra.
Basic admission is $20.95 on weekdays, $24.95 on weekends, and visitors can observe many of the resident creatures on a 9.5-mile self-driving tour. For a more immersive experience, there are reservation-only "behind-the-scenes" guided tours. For those who can't see it all in a day, the park offers overnight tent and lodge accommodations.
6. Global Wildlife Center
More than 4,000 threatened and endangered animals roam the 900 acres of Louisiana's Global Wildlife Center in Folsom, about an hour north of New Orleans. Here visitors join a 90-minute Safari Wagon Tour, moderately priced at $19, to meet face-to-face with the center's thoroughly spoiled cast of greeters including bison, giraffes, zebras, camels, elands and llamas.
7. Virginia Safari Park
Natural Bridge, Virginia
This 180-acre drive-through safari park in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley got a big boost in 2015 when Family Fun magazine named it No. 6 on its list of Top 10 U.S. Animal Attractions — right behind the prestigious San Diego Zoo. Readers favored this family-friendly little park mainly for its moderate admission fees ($17.95 for adults and $11.95 for children) and the absence of lots of extra fees.
An hour-long guided safari wagon tour is the only extra cost option at $6.50, although a drive-through in your own vehicle offers virtually the same experience. Safari Village is a 10-acre walk-through complex featuring a giraffe feeding station, a Bengal tiger exhibit, a kangaroo enclosure and an aviary. The park is open daily from March-November.
8. Lion Country Safari
Founded in 1967 on the outskirts of West Palm Beach, Lion Country is America's first (and Florida's only) drive-through safari park. Some 900 animals are on hand to entertain visitors, many roaming "wild" in the park's preserve, and others through up-close encounters, including feeding experiences.
The preserve is divided into seven sections named for various wildlife regions and parks around the world — among them, for example, are the Serengeti Plains, the Kalahari Bushveldt and the Pampas. Each section features wildlife indigenous to those locations.
A walk-through amusement park provides added fun for the kids, featuring a number of attractions including boat rides, a carousel, water slides, mini-golf and a petting zoo. Admission fees ($35 for adults and $26 for children) are quite reasonable for such a popular Sunshine State attraction.
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