A new home where an­i­mals can roam

Wild Florida sa­fari cov­ers 85 acres in Osce­ola County

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Marco Santana

Daniel Munns has wanted a gi­raffe at Wild Florida since even be­fore he and friends opened the Osce­ola County at­trac­tion in 2010. But when he first men­tioned the idea to the found­ing team, they laughed.

“We told him, ‘OK, dude, don’t ever say that again,’” co­founder Sam Haught re­called dur­ing an in­ter­view on Fri­day.

Now, Munns is hav­ing the last laugh. Leroy, the 2-year-old, 13-foot-tall gi­raffe, will be one of two fea­tured in a new, 85-acre sa­fari that opens at Wild Florida in Ke­nansville on Satur­day.

“It was a laugh­ing point be­cause it wasn’t re­al­is­tic at the time,” said Munns, who had been plan­ning to build the ga­tor-cen­tric Wild Florida park with his team at the time. “Now, it is.”

The $2.5 mil­lion fea­ture in­cludes a wind­ing, 2-mile driv­ing path that snakes through an area that is en­closed but does not con­tain cages for the an­i­mals. It greatly ex­pands on what had been a 15-acre site that fo­cused pri­mar­ily on al­li­ga­tors.

The ga­tor area is now in­cluded in the price of the sa­fari, which has an­i­mals like ze­bras, Wa­tu­sis, wilde­beests and large Asian an­te­lope known as nil­gai or blue bulls roam­ing the area.

Wild Florida is cer­tainly not

the first sa­fari in Florida, where the warm year­round weather has made it a com­fort­able place for African an­i­mals. A 110-acre sa­fari at Walt Dis­ney World’s An­i­mal King­dom has been bring­ing vis­i­tors up close to lions, ele­phants and chee­tahs since it opened in April 1998.

The 600-acre Lion Coun­try Sa­fari Park in Lox­a­hatchee has been around since 1967. But Wild Florida’s sa­fari rep­re­sents the first in Osce­ola County.

Some of the an­i­mals at the 75-em­ployee park had to be sim­ply mi­grated from Wild Florida’s ex­ist­ing walk­through park area.

Oth­ers, like the gi­raffe, had to be ac­quired from other lo­ca­tions.

“This has been the most fun part of our ca­reer,” Haught said. “Our whole fam­ily has been dream­ing this up and has wanted to do it for­ever.”

On a re­cent trek through the sa­fari, a flock of Mou­flon sheep looked on cu­ri­ously as the Ford F-250 with the Wild Florida logo on its side inched past.

The tour stopped briefly as a herd of wa­ter buf­falo blocked the truck’s path.

Ze­bras, wilde­beests and dual-horned Oryxes gen­er­ally kept their dis­tance. A camel named Elvis, how­ever, was a bit more cu­ri­ous. He ap­proached the ve­hi­cle and popped his head in.

“The an­i­mals here are mostly an­i­mals that one of us said, ‘We’d like to see one here,’” Haught said.

As the park gets set to open, Haught said any­one who has an is­sue with an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity should sup­port Wild Florida.

“Some of these an­i­mals have been in cap­tiv­ity their whole life,” said Haught, who chal­lenged those who want to see how the an­i­mals are treated to visit the park be­fore they judge it.

“This is prob­a­bly the most-plush area they have ever had. We have gone above and be­yond the re­quire­ments for these an­i­mals.”

Even­tu­ally, Haught wants to in­stall a zi­pline over the parks near a patch of cy­press trees.

The sa­fari costs $29 for adults and $20 for kids and in­cludes en­try to the main park.

As for the gi­raffes, Munns said he first thought of the idea to bring some to Wild Florida when he vis­ited an an­i­mal ex­hibit at the Sil­ver Spurs Arena in Kis­sim­mee in 2007.

A han­dler there gave him some advice. The key for any new an­i­mal at­trac­tion? Have some­thing ex­otic.

“He said if we wanted to put our­selves on the map, we would need a gi­raffe,” he said. “I said at the time, ‘Who needs a gi­raffe?’ But it seems to draw some at­ten­tion. I wake up in the morn­ing now and say, ‘Wow, we have a gi­raffe.’”

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Sam Haught, of Wild Florida, feeds a gi­raffe dur­ing a preview of the Ke­nansville park’s sa­fari, which opens its self-guided, 2-mile driv­ing tour on Satur­day.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

A Kil­i­man­jaro Sa­faris truck makes its way through the Wild Africa Trek at Dis­ney’s An­i­mal King­dom. The 3-hour tour through the Safi River Valley fea­tures ex­otic African wildlife. Wild Florida is the lat­est sa­fari ad­di­tion to the state.

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