Lion Country Safari: Florida’s Drive-Through Theme Park
About an hour north of Miami and west of Palm Beach, in an expanse of farmland and nature preserves between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Okeechobee, is the last thing you’d expect to see. Instead of alligators, you’ll find lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants, impalas, water buffaloes, chimpanzees, rhinoceros, ostriches and other four-legged creatures from far away lands that would never otherwise call South Florida home.
At least that’s what a group of bloggers and I saw with our own eyes earlier this year when, courtesy of Chevy, we rode some big, comfy mommy mobiles through Lion Country Safari and witnessed more animal rumps wildly romping than a night out on South Beach.
And just like South Beach, this was no ordinary zoo.
Although I’m a Miami native, I had never been to this 42 year-old park and wondered if it would be worth the drive from Miami-Dade. Two friends from Palm Beach joined me: a single mom and her gay brother, both in their late 40s. Had it not been for my friend’s seven year-old daughter, we could’ve easily called our ride the Chevy Cougar Mobile.
I thought for sure it would be easy for kids to be wowed by the big animals roaming just feet or sometimes inches from the car; I was very pleasantly surprised when the experience brought out the kid at heart in us grown ups too.
DRIVING THROUGH THE PARK
The four-mile drive-through safari begins just at the entrance of the park. We did it in just a little over an hour, but others in our Chevy group took longer. Driving through the expansive territory—with only brush pines for shade and none of the usual tropical foliage you’ll find elsewhere in South Florida—made for an “out of Miami” experience and provided the perfect backdrop for observing the wild animals, which total over 600 in all just in the drive-through alone.
The safari is divided into different sections representing wildlife from worldwide grasslands, as well as continental Africa and India. The most thrilling area of the safari, as you’d expect, is the lion’s territory, which reminded me of the movie Jurassic Park because of all the fencing and cattle guards at the entrance.
Security here is intense. You’re not supposed to roll down your car windows during the safari, which of course we did, thinking it would be impossible for those lions to jump the tall fences separating them from our cars. No sooner did we roll them down we heard a voice out of nowhere: “Please roll up your windows.” We were startled because we couldn’t see where on earth the voice was coming from. (It turns out a staff member in a truck was parked nearby with a megaphone waiting to warn all the idiots like us who invariably break the rule.)
The dozen or so lions and lionesses were positively majestic, even when seen from behind the glass of a car window. The big cats yawned, preened and generally lazed about. I could have stayed there for hours observing them, but we had to move on.
The other animals ranged freely in their own sections. Only air separated the one-ton water buffalo from our one-ton vehicle. I could have reached out and grabbed a beast by the horns—that’s how close they were—but I wasn’t about to be so brave. The buffalo, like all the animals we saw that day, were minding their own business and while not exactly ready for a stampede, their enormous size did spook the seven-year old a bit. Their impressive horns were higher than eye level.
All the animals being “at home” meant there was no hiding certain facts of nature, such as peeing and pooping, which of course fascinated my friend’s daughter. Later, I learned from some of the mommy bloggers who came with their kids that there was much talk and giggling about these bodily processes during the safari. So parents of little ones, be prepared for some interesting conversation!
The poop talk continued on with the zebras and the rhinoceros as we noted enormous piles of dung. But even that didn’t take away from the amazing beauty of these animals, which you can’t really appreciate until you see them up close – really close. The zebras, with black and white symmetry drawn on sinewy muscles, drew some “ahhs” from all of us in the car.
RHINOS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY
The rhinoceros drew some “ahhs” and some “eeks” too, as two of them ran across the road and I had to speed up to avoid their powerful horns plowing into the side of the car. Who knew something that heavy could run so fast? But they do have a reputation for being ferocious. That’s probably why there’s a big sign that says RHINOCEROS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY both at the entrance of the park and in the rhino zone. Miamians may not be good at obeying traffic laws, but I bet they would be if these majestic beasts ruled the streets.
Our next favorite animals were the giraffes, which greeted us at the end of the safari. One of them walked so close to the car, we had to crane our necks to look up at its head. These wowed us just as much as the zebras; their colorful orange spots looked like pieces of a puzzle perfectly put together. Leave it to mother nature to create such beautiful living and breathing works of art. And speaking of creation, the last thing we saw before exiting were baby giraffes and their mommies in a fenced-in maternity pen.
After the safari, my friend took her daughter for some rides elsewhere in the park, while I test drove a red Chevy Corvette, going from 0 to 45 in a couple of seconds. I wondered if I could outrun a cheetah, but I wasn’t going to let Florida Highway Patrol catch me experimenting with that kind of horsepower.
Lion Country Safari is well worth the trip from Miami for a day of adventure. We adults enjoyed it just as much as the kids. Although I only did the drive-through safari tour (that alone is worth the visit), there’s plenty more to do.
IF YOU GO
Lion Country Safari is located at 2003 Lion Country Safari Road - Loxahatchee, Florida 33470. Their main contact phone number is (561) 793-1084.
If you’ve got kids, you can really make a full day of it with other attractions in a walk-through safari that features camel rides, giraffe feeding, lory bird aviary, carnival-style rides, a petting zoo and a safari splash playground with 23 interactive water activities. There’s also a lake inside the park where you can enjoy a boat tour or paddle boat rides. Between the drive-through safari and other park experiences, you’ll see over 900 animals from six different continents.
For overnight camping, a KOA campground is located in an area adjacent to the park. Call 561-793-9797 for more information.
I drove a Chevy Equinox through the safari, which was a big, comfy roomy SUV. If you’ve got fidgety passengers, this type of car might be your best bet, because you will not be able to leave your vehicle under any circumstances during the drive-through safari. But any car is allowed, as long as it’s not a soft top or convertible. And of course, you should probably have air conditioning. You’ll roast in your car in the summer. Remember: you’re not allowed to open your windows.
Rental cars are available on the premises on a first come, first serve basis.
All photos courtesy of Lion Country Safari unless otherwise noted.
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"Lion Country Safari: Florida’s Drive-Through Theme Park"