Recently, one of our writers, Heidi Gollub, spent a few days in Central Florida with her younger children. Beyond going to the theme parks synonymous with the Orlando area, she checked out some off-the-beaten-path family friendly places. Here is her experience at Safari Wilderness Ranch.
Safari Wilderness Ranch in Lakeland, Florida, centrally located between Orlando and Tampa, is a 260-acre working game ranch that is home to large herds of exotic hoofstock. Visitors can get up close and personal with the animals on a guided tour of the property in a customized safari vehicle, led by an animal expert. It’s a unique experience for animal lovers of all ages.
Safari Wilderness Ranch in Central Florida
On a recent visit to Polk Country in Central Florida, my children and I joined an exotic game tour at Safari Wilderness Ranch, which Fodor’s recently named one of the top 10 best safaris in the country. We were excited by the prospect of spotting up to 50 different species of animals, from the comfort of our open-air vehicle, and to hand-feed some of the ranch’s 450 resident animals along the way. Secretly, we were also hoping to spot a ‘gator, which as non-Floridians is exotic to us, but we may have been the only ones thinking along those lines. Everyone else in our group seemed pretty stoked about discovering animals like the Scimitar-horned oryx (a species that is extinct in the wild).
Our guide for the morning, JJ, made our tour of the wilderness property both educational and fun. She greeted animals who approached the truck with a fond, “Good morning, my babies,” and then addressed them by their given names. Every time our vehicle would approach a new group of animals, JJ would say, “Oh, these are my favorite.” They are all her favorites. Every animal on the property has to be counted every day, so she knows them all well and clearly cares for them. Learning all she can about each species is her passion, and JJ was thrilled to share her knowledge with us. We learned about their ancestry, unique physical traits, diets, the history of what led many species to be endangered, breeding efforts coordinated with other game parks, and how the animals have been able to adapt to new environments.
Driving through a lush section of Florida’s Green Swamp, we spotted ostriches, camels (both dromedary and bactrian), waterbuck antelopes (who have adorable heart-shaped noses), kudu (with curly horns that used be used for shofars), Livingstone eland antelope, a warthog, and zebra families with one-month old foals in tow.
My children were rapt, and the adults in our group couldn’t take enough pictures or ask enough questions. JJ made the whole experience feel like a family affair.
The tour was two and a half hours, which was a little long for my kids in the hot Florida sun, but they rallied at the end when we got to feed the water buffalo.
JJ parked the vehicle and we stayed in this spot for a long time, interacting with the animals and dropping large pellets directly onto their long tongues. This was definitely our favorite part of the tour and worth the wait.
What to know before you go to Safari Wilderness Ranch:
- The custom vehicle safari tour costs $75 per person and must be booked in advance. Each safari vehicle seats 20 people. All ages are required to buy a ticket.
- Parking is $7.
- There are two tours each day, at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. It’s already hot in Florida at 9 a.m., and the vehicles are open-air, so I recommend the earlier tour. Also, the animals may seek out the shade, further from the vehicle, later in the day.
- Tours last two and a half hours. It is requested that you arrive half an hour before the start of your tour to check in and use the restroom. There are more animals in enclosures to visit following the tour, if you have the time.
- Tours are rain or shine.
10850 Moore Rd.
Lakeland, FL 33809
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Disclosure: Heidi and her family were invited guests at Safari Wilderness Ranch. She was not compensated for this article. All opinions are her own.