Florida is home to a variety of wildlife such as American crocodiles, Florida panthers, and Florida black bears. There are also several exotic safaris to visit and you don’t need a passport.
My passport is my brag book and it holds memories of exploits in exotic locales such as Afghanistan, Brazil, and Vietnam. Thankfully, living in Florida means I have access to experiences just as fascinating as those found elsewhere in the world. Best of all, if you’re a United States citizen, you do not need a passport to enjoy these fun adventures.
About a 45-minute drive northeast of Tampa is one of Fodor’s 10 Best Safaris in the U.S. It is Safari Wilderness Ranch in Lakeland, home to exotic animals from places as Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas where they freely roam on 260 acres of pristine wilderness. The ranch has a 47-acre sister property in Dade City called Giraffe Ranch.
At Giraffe Ranch, I rubbed the nose of a camel, felt the tongue of a giraffe, and fed grapes to ring-tailed lemurs. While visiting Safari Wilderness Ranch, I felt the smoothness of a llama’s snout and hand-fed water buffalo. These properties are not zoos nor are they amusement parks, but they are working game farms and wildlife preserves owned by Lex Salisbury with his wife Elena Sheppa.
The owners and staff are passionate about the ranches and residents which is probably why I felt as if I was being welcomed into the homes of friends and meeting their extended families. I also learned some (useless) trivia such as a giraffe’s tongue is about 18 to 20 inches long and camel’s hump is full of fat and not water. All tours and experiences are by advance reservation only which controls the number of daily visitors to each ranch and minimizes the human impact on the ranch
Activities at Giraffe Ranch in Dade City
Located about a 2-hour drive north of Port Charlotte, Giraffe Ranch offers a Safari Vehicle Tour where visitors are transported through ephemeral wetlands and live oak hammocks. Animals such as Grant’s zebra, warthog, bongo antelope, and ostrich roam these lands and the highlight is hand-feed giraffes. (60 – 90-minute tours offered twice a day; $90 per person)
The Camel Expedition offers guests a view of the ranch’s game by becoming part of the exotic herd on either a dromedary, Bactrian, or Tülu camel. As far as the ranch knows, during their 30 years of working with camels, they have developed and offer the only game-viewing safari visitors can experience on the back of a camel, outside of Africa. (60 – 90-minute tours offered twice a day, $180 per person)
If you are coordinated, unlike me, take the Segway Safari, probably the only one in the U.S., if not the world. Zipping around on a Segway puts visitors eye-to-eye with resident wildlife and allows the flexibility for the guide to stop and discuss small flora and fauna or game trails, which may be missed on the other tours. (60 – 90-minute tours offered twice a day; $180 per person)
After your tour, interact with more of the residents and some of the options include feeding adorable ring-tailed lemur or otters ($25 for each activity, per person). For the bold, get up close (but not too close) to a rhinoceros during the Rhino Encounter. ($60 per person)
Activities at Safari Wilderness Ranch in Lakeland
Enjoy the Vehicle Safari to spot wildlife as eland, waterbuck, and scimitar-horned oryx, and along the way you will be told which animals you can feed, such as water buffalo and llamas. Included with the tour is a walk-around experience either into the mammal house which is home to crested porcupine, lemurs, and others, or free-flight aviary, and petting zoo barn. (2-and-a-half hour tours offered twice a day; $90 per person)
Those looking to get a little bit of a workout during their adventure can participate in the Kayak Safari. Paddle freshwater areas with opportunities to see wetland species as majestic Defassa waterbuck and red lechwe on the shore. Common birds seen include killdeer, wood duck, and kestrel. Afterwards, hand-feed grapes to lemurs on Lemur Island. (offered twice a day; $180 per person).
Additional activities include Budgie Feeding in the outdoor aviary where visitors can feed up to 200 budgie parakeets. Or, feed a colony of guinea pigs, which, by the way, are neither from Guinea nor or they pigs. They are rodents native to the Peru. ($5 per millet seed stick for the Budgie Feeding and $5 per person for the Guinea Pig Feeding).
An African safari is on my bucket list and maybe someday it will happen. If not, I am okay with that because I have experienced the next best thing during visits to Giraffe Ranch and Safari Wilderness Ranch.
Nuts & Bolts About Giraffe Ranch and Safari Wilderness Ranch
Advance reservations for all tours are required at both locations.
38650 Mickler Road
Dade City Fla. 33523
Tel: (813) 482-3400
Where to Have Lunch Near Giraffe Ranch
Steph’s Southern Soul Restaurant
14519 5th St.
Dade City, Fla. 33525
Tel: (352) 437-5907
Safari Wilderness Ranch
10850 Moore Rd.
Lakeland, Fla. 33809
Tel: (813) 382-2120
Where to Have Lunch Near Safari Wilderness Ranch
The Red Top Pit Stop
12160 U.S. Hwy. 98 N.
Lakeland, FL 33809