By: Vanessa Caceres
You don’t need to travel overseas to go on a safari. Your wilderness journey is less than two hours away from Sarasota to visit Safari Wilderness in Lakeland, Florida.
Safari Wilderness—a working, 265-acre ranch—is home to 500 animals (45+ species) from South America, Africa, and Asia. Mix that in with the Florida rural scenery, and you’ll feel like you’ve gone around the globe during your journey.
Our visit to Safari Wilderness begins with a short walk on a wooden boardwalk over the Green Swamp—it’s the Sunshine State’s second-largest wetlands area, second only to the Everglades.
What to Expect When You Visit Safari Wilderness
We check in for the safari (reservations are required) at the Safari Lodge and then wait for the adventure to begin. While waiting, we see two sister calico cats (one of them chasing after a grasshopper), a large group of guinea pigs in a protected area, and peacocks and other birds in the aviary.
When it’s time to board the converted, covered, open school bus for the safari, tour guide JJ James says she’s going to close the door to the gift shop. “I have a free-range pig who wants to go in the gift shop,” she says.
As we make our way on the gravel and dirt road, ostriches run toward the safari bus, eagerly anticipating the food we’ll offer. At Safari Wilderness, the animals can freely roam on the property. “This is their home,” says James, a former tiger groomer for Ringling Circus. Within a few minutes of the tour, we’ve already seen ostriches, antelope, and llamas, who also came right up to the bus for treats.
But the ostriches won the drama award for chasing after the bus to get more food. The safari plows along a somewhat bumpy path (“I’m supposed to stay on the roads,” James says) as visitors snap shots of ponds, greenery, blue skies, and a whole cavalcade of different animals, including Irish dexter cattle (famous for heritage beef), swamp deer, and wild Asian cattle.
There are other animals that we get to feed, including the water buffalo that are cooling down in the water on this hot day. “Come on girls!” James calls out to them when we drive by. “They are your best friends as long as you have treats,” she says. And sure enough, these gentle animals eagerly eat the treats we offer.
From warthogs to rias (a South American animal similar to an ostrich) to African watusi that let out a bellow when we arrive, we observe other animals resting, grazing, and generally hanging out. Yet one animal that generates even more excitement is the zebra. We ooh and aahh over a baby zebra with his mom.
When the two-hour tour in the bus wraps up, we return to the gift shop area—but we’re actually not done. James introduces us to the camels (say cheese to get a photo with them beside you), lemurs, and birds in the aviary.
Even if you’ve gone on a tour once, James recommends returning in the future. Weather and animal habits can change the tour experience. “No two tours are alike,” she says. In addition to the safari tours offered twice a day, Safari Wilderness has camel expeditions, a kayak safari, a sunset safari, and special experiences to feed the lemurs, budgies, and guinea pigs. The Safari Lodge can be rented out for special events.
Make sure to wear closed-toed shoes. Although you stay in the vehicle during the safari, you’ll walk around some areas with grass and dirt before and after the tour. Have your camera or your phone ready for pictures as well. Tours go rain or shine.
If you’re famished after your adventure, you’ll find several food options off of exits 32 and 33 of Interstate 4 on your way back to Sarasota.