Friday, May 5, 2017

Places I've Never Been - Lion Country Safari

I'm starting a new series of posts themed around "Places I've Never Been" and Lion Country Safari happens to be one of those places! When I was a kid, my family went to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Universal Studios a lot. We even went to the smaller parks, like Japanese Village & Deer Park (in Buena Park) and Busch Gardens (in Van Nuys), but I think Lion Country Safari in Irvine was just far enough away from where we lived in L.A. County, that it wasn't on my parents' radar.

The original Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida (near West Palm Beach) opened in 1967 and is still in operation today. It's success spawned five more parks across the country, with the Southern California version opening in 1970 and closing in 1984. The other four parks, which were in Grand Prairie, Texas; Stockbridge, Georgia; Mason, Ohio and Doswell, Virginia, have all closed as well.

I picked up this brochure for the California location when I was a kid, and I've kept it all these years.

I do remember hearing that the animals were never out in the numbers that were shown in television commercials, or in promotional photos like these. I also remember people saying that most of the animals were asleep when they went. Maybe someone out there can tell me what their experience of visiting the park was like!

Sleeping animals or not, I always wanted to go for the rides....even though they didn't appear to have very many. In my child's mind, it looked like they had their own versions of the Disneyland train, Motor Boat Cruise, Autopia, and Jungle Cruise.

Adults, $3.95 and Children, $2.75.....the prices seem reasonable enough.

Well, even though I never got the chance to see Lion Country Safari for myself, some of my family members did go in June of 1976, so I'm including the photos that were taken during their visit.

Apparently, the park offered rides on baby elephants. I hope this is something that would not be allowed least not in the U.S.

This baby zebra reminds me of the statue of the dog that used to be in front of the Candy Parlor at Knott's Berry Farm, and also the statues of the burros that used to be in Knott's Fiesta Village area.

Hippo-shaped pedal boats! I wonder what happened to Lion Country Safari's rides after the park closed? I hope that at least the train was saved and went on to have a second life.

This smaller flyer appears to be from a bit later than the first brochure. It shows a one dollar increase in adult prices and mentions that Lion Country Safari is "Freeway Close To Everything.....a Gas Savings Convenience!" which would probably date this from the mid-1970's when the country was experiencing an "energy crisis."

Convertibles and pets are not permitted in the park! That's nice that they provided free kennel service for pets. And even though the park itself didn't move, the back of this flyer now lists the park's address as Laguna Hills instead of Irvine. That reminds me of when the Matterhorn at Disneyland "moved" from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland!

Of all the animals that resided at Lion Country Safari over the years, two of them became somewhat famous. Frasier the Lion was a "star attraction" at the park back in it's heyday. Frasier was already a geriatric kitty cat when the park acquired him from a Mexican circus in 1970 and he only lived a couple more years after that, but he sired more than 30 lion cubs during his time at Lion Country Safari! This 1972 photo of Frasier and his "family" is from the Los Angeles Times.

Frasier was even the subject of a motion picture in 1973, Frasier the Sensous Lion. A stand-in lion was actually used for Frasier.

Bubbles was an eight year-old hippo that became headline news after she escaped from the park in 1978 and roamed around free for almost 3 weeks. (I actually just heard Richard Dawson make a "Bubbles" reference on Match Game '78, on the Buzzr Channel last night.) Unfortunately, her story ended more tragically than Frasier's, and can be read about here if anyone is interested: Bubbles the Hippo. This 1978 photo of Bubbles and her daughter is from the Los Angeles Times.

I remember reading articles about the death of both of the animals and sharing the one about Frasier during "current events" at school. I wish I had saved those articles. I saved a lot of newspaper clippings from childhood, but unfortunately the obituaries for the two Lion Country Safari residents are long gone.

The death knell for Lion Country Safari itself, came when the park went bankrupt and closed permanently in 1984. Wild Rivers waterpark was built on the site two years later. Wild Rivers closed in 2011 and the Los Olivos Apartment Village sits on most of the property today. (In 1981, the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater was built on a portion of Lion Country Safari's land but it was torn down in November of 2016 and will be replaced with more apartments.)

As I mentioned earlier, the original Lion Country Safari in Florida is still operating. About ten years ago, I acquired a family's set of Florida vacation slides from 1975. The set included pics of Walt Disney World (which I have posted in the past), Cypress Gardens, Busch Gardens, and Lion Country Safari. Here are the pictures that were taken at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee. The slides are dated March, 1975 and these are all in the order that they were taken.

Note the hood of the car and the side-view mirror in the next two pics:

A lone rhino:

The color on most of these had turned. I tried to correct them the best that I could, but I don't have Photoshop. I do realize that there is too much green in most of them. I was tempted to just convert them all to black and white!

A lone ostrich:

I'm not sure what kind of animal this is. It looks a little bit like a deer. Maybe it's an antelope?

And now we get to the animals that the park is named after:

I'm guessing that tire was thrown out there for the lions to play with, or maybe it was used as a scratching post? I suppose it could be all that's left of some visitors and their car after breaking down out there!

Just like the park in California, the original had an amusement area adjacent to the drive-thru section and included animal shows, bird feeding pavilions and a few rides. Today that area is called Safari World and includes a small water park. I believe this first pic was taken at the entrance to the park. I'm basing that off of the current park map, but these pics are 42 years old, so a lot could have changed since then. If anyone knows for sure, please chime in below in the comments!

I hope everyone enjoyed this 1970's visit to two of the five Lion Country Safari parks! I'm going to end this post with a clip from an episode of The Simpsons, when they go to a fictional park called, "Discount Lion Safari." The episode is titled, "Old Money" and is from Season 2 of the show. It's kind of a sad episode. This two and a half minute clip includes the part where the family goes to the drive-thru safari park:


K. Martinez said...

Those green rhino and green ostrich photos sure look familiar to me, or is it just my imagination? ;-)

Nice post today. Looks like we belong to the same club, as I too have never been to Lion Country Safari. Been to several other animal parks, but not that one.

It sounds like the guy who gave advice to Walt about the Jungle Cruise was right that the animals would most likely sleep during the day.

I liked the Simpsons clip you shared. The lions eating the zebra reminded me of the African Veldt on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise.

Thanks, TokyoMagic!. I thoroughly enjoyed your post today.

One more thing. I always thought those Hippo boats were cool!

TokyoMagic! said...

Thanks, Ken! I forgot about that advice that Walt received about using real animals in the Jungle Cruise!

Now I'm wondering if the creators of the Simpsons got the idea for that zebra eating gag from the Jungle Cruise? I couldn't resist including the Discount Lion Safari clip in this post. They have done a pretty good job at spoofing amusement parks....Duff Gardens, Itchy & Scratchy Land, Mount Splashmore, and others that I'm probably forgetting now.

Chuck said...

TM!, I had a copy of that exact same early brochure that lived in the top drawer of the left-hand end table in the living room throughout my entire childhood. It kept company with brochures for many other places we visited or contemplated visiting and guidebooks and maps from places like Mission San Gabriel, Alcatraz Island, and a couple of obscure Orange County amusement parks you've probably never heard of.

I recently wrote about most of my LCS memories in a comment on another blog, so I won't rehash those here, but your post has jogged a few more memories.

On the day we visited in January of '76, I remember there being a lot of animals out and moving around in the safari area. Not sure if it was the temperature or the time of day or what, but they were pretty active. I remember seeing a rhino out with the other herbivores in the drive-thru area, but I don't remember seeing any hippos from the car. I have a vague memory of the hippos (which would have included Bubbles) being in a separate area. Not sure if that's accurate or not; I might be conflating that with any one of dozens of zoos I've visited over the years.

The only animals that seemed to be inactive were the lions. And there seemed to be a LOT of them, all piled up together. Although Frasier had passed four years earlier, I'm sure that many of them were his descendants.

I don't remember the train at all (the photo shows was built by Crown Metal Products, but I can't seem to find any information on it), and I'm not sure I'm remembering the safari boat or mixing it up with a similar boat at Florida's Silver Springs. I do remember that evil, possessed, zebra-striped Jeep ride, though. Thanks a LOT - I'll be sleeping with my head under the covers tonight. I'd rather have zither music stuck in my head than that memory haunting my dreams.

The rest of the memories are pretty good though. Thanks for bringing them back!

TokyoMagic! said...

Hey Chuck, I remember Major Pepperidge's LCS post from March, but I had forgotten your comment about the scary tunnel with the masks and spears. I probably would have remembered it if I had actually experienced the ride myself. At least LCS included some kind of "show scenes" in their car ride. Maybe they should have put a warning out front explaining that some scenes may be too intense for small children. I'm assuming you were pretty young in 1976. I do remember your story about the ostrich that might have watched Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" one too many times. Too funny! If you did see Bubbles in 1976, she just might have been plotting her great escape at that time.

And which obscure Orange County amusement parks were you talking about?

TokyoMagic! said...

Chuck, I forgot to thank you for sharing your memories from your family's visit to LCS! I'm also glad to hear that the animals were out and about when you visited!

Chuck said...

They were just a couple of flash-in-the-pan startups that I'm sure disappeared overnight. One was some sort of restaurant-and-shopping thing and the other was a badly-conceived idea involving a couple of boat rides and - of all things - a castle in the middle of the orange groves. The things people will try just to separate gullible tourists from their hard-earned cash...

TokyoMagic! said...

Oh, THOSE obscure Orange County amusement parks!

Major Pepperidge said...

Hooray, I have been to Lion Country Safari, and that makes me GREAT! My memories of the park are vague - all I know is that I was very disappointed that lions neither blocked our path nor jumped on the hood of our car. We did enjoy the hippo paddle boats, though they were a workout. Still, there is something fun about that time, when theme parks seemed to be everywhere in Southern California. SO... did you ever to go Wild Animal Park?!

TokyoMagic! said...

Major, and the commercials ALWAYS showed the lions crossing in front of the cars and jumping up on them. FALSE ADVERTISING! I like that photo that you posted of your family in one of the hippo boats. I wish my family pic was taken a little closer so that more of the boat's details showed up. And I never made it down to Wild Animal Park. I heard that they tore out their monorail that used to take guests on a tour of the property. That's a major bummer! Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL also had a monorail that toured the area where the animals were roaming, but they took theirs out as well. What's up with that?

Chuck said...

TM!, monorails have been linked with emphysema and rickets, and neither of those are good for animals (camels are particularly sensitive to emphysema).

King's Island used to have an animal park - complete with a monorail as well - way out in the NE corner of the property beyond the Racers roller coaster. The location was a little odd - the only access was through the park - and if I'm remembering right, it had an additional admission cost of a dollar, paid as you boarded the monorail. It was the longest ride in the park (like, 30-45 minutes) and the monorails were air conditioned, so my junior high buddies and I would usually spring the extra buck in the mid-afternoon to get off our feet and get out of the heat.

TokyoMagic! said...

Hey Chuck, now that you mention it, my brother went to Kings Dominion (same company as Kings Island) in the seventies and brought me back a large souvenir map. I seem to recall that they also had an Africa/Kilimanjaro section of the park with a monorail ride past live animals. I'll have to dig that map out!

Snow White Archive said...

Really enjoyed your post Tokyo. I like the new series idea. The Bubbles story was sad but I'm glad see lived her last days on her own terms.

TokyoMagic! said...

SWA, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I never thought about how Bubbles lived out those last days on her own terms. Maybe for a wild animal, the alternative is better than spending your entire life in captivity.

Anonymous said...

I've been to LCS a few times in the last few years and highly recommend a visit. It's not super big so you can do the whole thing in a few hours which is great if you have small kids. There are two parts: the drive-thru and the park where you can get a lot closer to the animals. The really amazing thing is how clean it is. Normally one would expect a place where animals are doing their business wherever they please combined with the Florida heat should be an assault on the olfactory bulb. But that was not the case on my visits.