SUN­SHINE STATE SA­FARI

Ex­otic an­i­mals in our back­yard, fun and ed­u­ca­tional tours for all ages

Cape Coral Living - - Contents - BY MANDY CARTER

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.

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