I have always been a bit skeptical about zoos. I'm just not convinced that the animals are happy and seeing them in cages often leaves me depressed, even if my children seem to have fun. So I am the first to admit that I was pleasantly surprised, dare I say impressed with my first visit to a U.S. drive-through wildlife safari park with my two young daughters.
We visited Six Flags Great Adventure Wild Safari (tel. 732/928-1821; www.sixflags.com) in Jackson, NJ, which is a 90 minute drive from New York City by car. At first I was a little worried when we turned up at 2pm (the park closes at 4pm) -- as it seems that we weren't the only ones who thought this was a good time to arrive on a sunny summer Saturday. There was a relatively short line of cars waiting to get in, so all in all that was the only traffic jam of the afternoon. Admission price is $20 plus tax per person in your vehicle; free for children two and under. When I asked about my three year old, the considerate attendant remarked "She's two, not three" and didn't charge us. Sometimes honesty does pay off.
There are rules in place, like obeying the low speed limit, giving way to animals, not feeding the animals and keeping your car windows closed at all times (although I saw numerous people opening their windows and sunroofs for photo and video opportunities). Despite my original reservations about the entire concept of wildlife safaris (and the feeling that I was about to venture into Jurassic Park), I actually had a lot of fun and my kids absolutely loved it. Being in the comfort of our own, air-conditioned car made the experience all the more pleasurable as it meant that we could eat, drink, watch the animals, take photographs and do everything at our own pace minus strollers and tired children.
We particularly enjoyed the animals that roam free -- various species of deer, yak, bison, baboons, bears, zebras, rhinos, giraffe, ostriches, emus and kangaroos. Most of the more predatory and possibly aggressive animals remain behind fences (such as the lions, tigers, and elephants). There are over 1,200 animals in total over an area of some 350 acres. The giraffe were especially friendly and curious, walking in between cars and peering through sunroofs -- which made for exceptional photography. The girls giggled with delight as black bears encircled our vehicle and made it look as if we were on show, rather than them. The entire circuit took around 90 minutes and the children (and adults) were enthralled from start to finish.
The map and information pamphlet was a great guide for the children to use to spot individual animals and learn more about them. At the end of the park, there was an education center which really consisted of a few more animals -- mainly exotic birds -- in cages and hanging out on tree branches with park officers handling them and explaining their behavior to visitors. There were also pony rides (the one thing that I really thought was unnecessary and out of place). If you arrive without a car, or prefer not to drive, you can join their guided bus tours of the park or for a more in-depth tour, take a pre-reserved special three-hour Safari VIP Off-Road Adventure (tel. 732/928-2000, ext. 2076) for $150 per person.
Although Six Flags is considered the largest (in terms of animal population), there are several other wildlife safari parks open across the country offering equally enjoyable experiences for adults and children alike.
African Safari Wildlife Park (tel. 800/521-2660; www.africansafariwildlifepark.com) is located in Port Clinton, OH, roughly halfway between Cleveland and Detroit. The 100-plus-acre preserve offers hundreds of rare, exotic, and endangered animals from around the world, including more than 50 different animal species, from giraffe and warthogs to alpacas and camels. During the summer months (May 24 to September 1), the park is open daily from 9am-7pm and entry for visitors aged seven and up is $17 or $11 for kids aged three to six (children two years and under are free). In the fall and spring the hours are 10am to 5pm daily and the prices go down to $14 and $8 respectively. If you have a large car-full of people, there's a coupon on the website you can print out that can save you money on entry fees -- offering a set price of $50 per car load, no matter how many occupants.
Wildlife Safari (tel. 541/679-676; www.wildlifesafari.org) in Winston, OR is about 80 minutes' drive south of Eugene. The park offers 450 acres of habitat for 500 plus animals from Africa, Asia and the Americas. In particular, the park is known for its successful cheetah breeding program and research facilities. The Safari Petting Zoo, featuring deer, calves, llamas, and goats is open daily for petting, viewing, and feeding. They also offer seasonal camps for children including Adventure camp days from August 26 to 28 for ages seven to 14 years.
Camp covers different topics such as classification and adaptation, conservation, animal care, and colors and camouflage. Camps run from 10am-3pm daily and sack lunches are available from $5. Campers can experience an "inside event" such as a Giraffe Feed, or ride an African Elephant, or create fun animal crafts. Pre-registration is required and the cost is $32 per day or $90 for three days. The park is open 10am-4 pm from October 1 through March 9 and 9am-5pm from March 10 to November. Admission prices are $15 in winter and $19 in summer for adults, children pay $9 and $12 and seniors are $12 and $15 respectively. Kids under three years old are free.
Wild Animal Safari (tel. 800/367-2751; www.animalsafari.com) in Pine Mountain, GA is located 78 miles south of Atlanta. Their Serengeti Adventure is a 200-acre site featuring a wide selection of African species including zebra, tigers, lions, buffalo, and rhinos. You will be able to touch a Giraffe, come face to face with American Bison, and see many other animals from all over the world in a natural setting. A separate section called Walk-About is more similar to a zoo environment with animals in pens like monkeys, bears, alligators, wolves, deer and tropical birds plus a petting zoo. Admission is $17 for adults, $14 for seniors and kids aged three to 12 years and toddlers two and under are free. You can drive through in your own vehicle, board a park bus or rent a seven-seat zebra striped park (cost is $11). The park is open daily from 10 to 5:30pm weekdays (last entry at 4:30pm) and weekends until 7:30pm (6:30pm entry).