SUNSHINE STATE SAFARI
Exotic animals in our backyard, fun and educational tours for all ages
A lesser-known attraction tucked in the center of the state, Safari Wilderness is where you can experience the excitement of an African safari, observe and learn about exotic animals, and have an inspiring nature-filled day with your family.
Taking my family on a safari in Africa is on my bucket list, but not possible to do at this time for many reasons. There are, however, a few safari opportunities in the United States— so what a treat to find out that Safari Wilderness Ranch is conveniently located in the Polk County city of Lakeland, Florida, between Tampa and Orlando. Safari Wilderness Ranch makes an excellent add-on to a Florida vacation itinerary for out-of-staters, or something for Florida residents to do for a family outing one weekend. This unique attraction, which is unknown to so many, is only a short distance from Walt Disney World Resort. And although just a couple of hours from Southwest Florida, it feels like a world away. The ranch is not your ordinary Florida theme park “animal safari experience.” I am a fan of theme parks because they provide some wonderful family memories—but of course there is more to Florida than theme parks. So trust me when I say that Safari Wilderness Ranch is not anything like the animalviewing rides you can take at the nearby parks. For starters, Safari Wilderness Ranch limits the number of guests on the property at any given time, making it more of an exclusive feel, in addition to being a fun and educational family adventure. During the tour, you’ll learn about Florida history and the ranch’s conservation programs. You’ll encounter many animals that are endangered or extinct in the wild. Its website notes the ranch has large herds of animals from Africa and other parts of the world. Included are antelopes such as eland, greater kudu, waterbuck, scimitar-horned oryx, sitatunga, nilgai and red lechwes. It also has Grant’s zebras, barasingha (swamp deer), axis deer, fallow deer, water buffaloes, Watusi cattle and more. There are several “Adventure Experiences” to choose from when visiting Safari Wilderness Ranch: The Customized
ALTHOUGH JUST A COUPLE OF HOURS FROM SOUTHWEST FLORIDA, it feels like a world away.
Vehicle Safari has a “special truck canopy.” The Camel Expedition does not allow children under age 3, and children ages 3 to 5 must ride with an adult. The Kayak Safari does not allow children under age 5, and children ages 5 to 8 must ride with an adult. In addition, Sunset Safaris are offered on Friday and Saturday in the summer. My youngest child is 3 years old, so we chose the Customized Vehicle Safari. It was easy to book our Sunday afternoon tour online at safariwilderness.com. We received a confirmation email with reservation information and FYI details. We were advised to wear closed-toe shoes and cool clothing, and to bring sunscreen. It was recommended to arrive 30 minutes before our tour’s start time, to allow everyone to check in, use the restroom and look around before boarding the vehicle. (The tour lasts about two and a half hours. I limited the children’s fluids before we took the tour, to make sure they’d make it through without any accidents.) After boarding the vehicle, the tour guide gives some safety rules and an overview of what’s ahead. Then it’s off on an animal adventure! The guide stops often to share info and facts, and make sure everyone has a good look at the exotic animals. I never felt rushed or that I missed anything. Participants were able to ask any questions as we went along, which gave so many perspectives to the experience. Feeding animals from the vehicle was a highlight that every person on the tour enjoyed. Birds flew overhead while zebras and red lechwes ran through the fields, and ostriches chased our vehicle. The $90-per-person cost of the Customized Vehicle Safari tour is well worth it for a good-as-it-gets experience of a wildlife safari without flying to Africa. And there are a number of other things to do with children after the tour. We decided to pay an additional fee to meet and feed the ranch’s ring-tailed lemurs. Lemurs are fun to watch. They were so excited to have us visit; they all lined up to take grapes from our hands, one grape at a time. I was so surprised at how soft their hands are and how they wanted to grasp my hand before taking the grape. The experience with the eager lemurs was the perfect way to end a one-of-a-kind day.
BIRDS FLEW OVERHEAD WHILE ZEBRAS AND RED LECHWES RAN THROUGH THE FIELDS, and ostriches chased our vehicle.
Visitors to Safari Wilderness Ranch in Lakeland, Florida, enjoy close-up encounters with Grant's zebras.
From left: A springbok stands majestically in a field on the ranch; children can experience a wildlife safari in Central Florida.