Lion Country Safari is a drive-through safari park and walk-through amusement park located on over 600 acres in Loxahatchee (near West Palm Beach), in Palm Beach County, Florida. Founded in 1967, it claims to be the first 'cageless zoo' in the United States.
In 2009, USA Travel Guide named Lion Country the 3rd best zoo in the nation.
In the beginning, the park had its own narrow gauge railroad, the Everglade Express. This attraction was eventually closed and the Crown Metal Products 4-4-0 locomotive was put on static display. Later, the locomotive was donated to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami before finally being bought and fully restored by the Veterans Memorial Railroad, located in Bristol, Florida's Veterans Memorial Park. It runs on that railroad to this day.
The original South Florida park is the only one remaining in operation. Lion Country Safari previously operated parks in Irvine, California (1970-1984); Grand Prairie, Texas (1971-1992); Stockbridge, Georgia (1970-1984); Mason, Ohio (1974-1993) and Doswell, Virginia (1974-1993); all of them subsequently closed.
On June 20, 2017 it was announced that Marcella Leone, founder and director of the non-profit Leo Zoological Conservation Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, was in negotiations to purchase the park.
The original park in Florida consists of over 1,000 animals, throughout seven sections in the 4-mile preserve as well as the 33-acre Amusement Park.
Visitors who purchase a ticket enter the park in their own vehicle (no convertibles), driving slowly at their own pace, and view the animals while listening to a recorded narration on audiotape or CD. Many of the animals, such as giraffes, rhinoceroses, and zebras, are allowed to roam freely throughout the preserve, even crossing the road in front of vehicles. Others, such as lions or chimpanzees, are segregated behind fences or water barriers.
Visitors are warned to drive slowly and carefully, to avoid stopping too close to animals, and not to open their car doors or windows. The lions, whose ability to roam freely with cars was one of the park's original attractions, were separated from visitors by a fence around the road in 2005, due to visitors ignoring warnings and opening their car doors.
A unique aspect of Lion Country Safari is the chimpanzee exhibit. The chimps live on an island system where they move to a different island every day, replicating their natural nomadic lifestyle. The chimps live in complex social groups, as they would in the wild. Because of this, Lion Country Safari has been useful to those interested in behavioral studies of chimps. As of 2012, chimpanzees living at Lion Country Safari included Little Mama, one of the oldest known living chimpanzees, born in 1938, who died on November 14th 2017 from kidney failure. Lion Country Safari also serves as a retirement facility for chimpanzees who were once used in research laboratories and entertainment.
After visitors have driven through the park, they can visit Safari World, a theme park featuring exhibits, and amusement park fare such as an Animal Theater, a petting zoo, mini golf, paddle boats, 2 water slides, a small water park, and the popular giraffe-feeding exhibit. Food is available at Lion Country Safari's main restaurant.
The Lion Country Safari franchise in Irvine, California, briefly featured a lion that became a celebrity in his own right.
An aging circus lion from Mexico was given to the Irvine facility in 1970. Already 18 years old, which translated to be 80+ years old in human terms, the lion was toothless and ill. Named "Frasier," he became a major attraction at the park when, despite his advanced age, Frasier fathered litters totalling 35 lion cubs, by the park's pride of six lionesses. As a result, T-shirts, watches, and other souvenirs, featuring a photo of Frasier, were hot items at the theme parks.
In 1973, Lion Country tried to capitalize on their star with a feature film called Frasier the Sensuous Lion. The film featured a song, by the same title, performed by Sarah Vaughan. However, the film was a major flop, both financially and critically, for the use of using a different lion and fictionalizing the story with someone doing the voice of Frasier.
Frasier the Sensuous Lion died of pneumonia in 1972. He was buried at the park, with a sendoff by the Frasier clan of Scotland, which had adopted Frasier as its mascot.
After his death, attendance at Lion Country Safari declined sharply.
IRVINE PARK DECLINE AND CLOSURE:
Problems arose after Frazier's passing at the Irvine location. An escaped elephant killed a motorist on the 405 freeway, and it was captured and sent to an elephant sanctuary. Monkeys escaped and damaged vehicles before being captured. A hippopotamus, trapped under water, nicknamed "Bubbles" was shot and killed, not knowing that it was pregnant. All of those incidents made the Irvine park a bad name. The lions had to be separated in a fenced area, due to the number of animals being killed by the lions. In 1984, after losing a great deal of money with declining attendances. The Irvine location closed its doors forever. It became a water ride theme park in the late 1980s, until it closed its doors and was demolished for condominium projects.