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February 21, 2016

Safari Wilderness Ranch

If you've been following us for any length of time, you've certainly figured out that we are big fans of animal encounters. Recently, we discovered one of Central Florida's best hidden gems. Hands down, Safari Wilderness Ranch is simply the best wildlife attraction we've found yet! If you love animals even just half as much as we do, this one should top your must-see list. If you only take one recommendation from our site, it has to be this one. 


Safari Wilderness Ranch is a little bit of a trek - located between Orlando and Tampa in Lakeland, Florida. There are no thrill rides... it's not a zoo... no costumed characters or parades - it's just pure, rural, natural edutainment. Safari Wilderness Ranch is a family-owned, licensed, working ranch, removed from the chaotic bustle of tourism central, and it's quite possibly the most memorable, unpredictable experience you'll find in the region. 
Situated in the middle of Florida's Green Swamp, the ranch occupies 260 acres of expansive land covered in a variety of landscapes and greenery. It combines elements representative of Florida as well as the African ecosystems that many of its resident species hail from. Marshes, cypress domes, ample trees and ponds create a diverse, welcoming, year-round habitat.
After you park at Safari Wilderness Ranch, a long plank walkway leads to the Safari Lodge - a two-story, 13,000 square foot facility that is perfect for private events (and yes, they do rent the building out for such gatherings). The Safari Lodge offers amazing views overlooking the ranch.
The Safari Lodge is air-conditioned, with guest restrooms right outside. It is also home to the Safari Wilderness Ranch gift shop, where you can find original apparel, plush animals, souvenir trinkets, and more. You can also purchase a cup of food to feed the animals on the safari for just $5. 
Tours run twice daily, at 9am and 1pm, and the experience is very limited. Advance reservations are required, and guests are asked to arrive thirty minutes prior to their scheduled tour. Guests can choose from tours on camel-back ($150 per person) or in customized, covered safari vehicles with stadium seating ($75 per person). 
Whichever option you choose, you'll be led by a knowledgeable tour guide. JJ was our guide, and she was full of captivating information about the ranch and the animals. If you're looking to sneak some education into your outing, this is the place to be. While we have been to many animal-themed attractions, none have been this informative. JJ went out of her way to tell us about every type of creature they have at the ranch - where they come from, their diets, their behaviors... even their very unique, individual personalities! Not only did we learn from her, but she made it very obvious that the staff at the ranch has a deep passion and feeling of responsibility for the animals they keep. 
Personally, I've often found myself frustrated by safaris and animal experiences. The guides speed through the encounter, leaving you no real opportunity for decent photos, and it's often difficult to hear what they're telling you. That was not the case here. JJ would stop the vehicle frequently, whenever she found animals. She'd take her time communicating facts and pointing out details we probably would have missed. She welcomed questions along the way as well. If you love the chance to photograph wildlife, you will leave this experience with some truly incredible photo captures!
During the safari, you pass through multiple gates. As JJ would stop the vehicle to open and close the gates, she would also work to keep the critters from coming through. I have to admit... it was amusing to watch JJ face off with the persistent llamas. She warned us before we began our journey - the llamas are quite frisky, and very anxious to see their human visitors. She wasn't kidding!! We rarely encountered a gate without at least one or two llamas running to greet us. Of course, there was a reason for that.
Llamas are like furry garbage disposals... they will eat themselves silly! They know that the vehicles represent feeding time, and they did not hesitate to walk right up to us to see who was holding the goodies!
If they didn't readily find a guest with a feeding cup, they had no qualms with helping themselves to the feed bucket beside JJ's seat. She kept this bucket close at-hand so that she could toss food from the vehicle, luring the animals away from our path when we were in motion. It really was hysterical to watch the whole process. Some of these llamas were a bit too smart to easily lure away, and the rest were quick to eat and start back on their vehicle chase. 

Most of the animals at Safari Wilderness Ranch are roaming free across the property. During the two hour tour, you'll encounter large herds of exotic game, including eland, red lechwe, sitatunga, springbok,  waterbuck, Grant’s zebragreater kuduWatusi cattlebarasinghaaxis deerfallow deer, ostriches, scimitar-horned oryxnilgaiblackbuck antelope, and so many other lively, happy, friendly critters!












There are full families in the mix as well. There's nothing quite as charming as watching the interactions between mothers and babies in the animal kingdom.

The water buffaloes were a highlight! Much like the llamas, they're anxious for a feeding (but they're less goofy about their begging). 

JJ was so proud of her camel pals. Camel tours are her specialty, and she has an extraordinary fondness for these alluring animals. There are two types of camels at Safari Wilderness Ranch - Bactrian and Dromedary. Do you know the difference in these types? Thanks to JJ, we do!
If you're really lucky, you can even catch lemur meditation time on their thoughtfully designed island - ohm!!
Before your safari departs, or when you return, make sure to visit the animals that reside near the Lodge. Here, you'll find a bird aviary, free-range chickens and peacocks, pens of pigs and goats, porcupines, and even Franklin the tortoise (who thoroughly enjoys strawberries)! 




Just in case you didn't get enough one-on-one feeding time on your safari, you can also opt to feed the guinea pigs - who have an elaborate home beside the Lodge. I've had plenty of guinea pigs myself, but none of them ever had such snazzy living quarters. This photo shows the interior portion of their living area. It connects to a colossal open-air pen filled with busy toys and hiding spots. Speaking of hiding - can you spot all of the busy piggies playing hide and seek in the hay?
I always save the best for last. Can I just admit that it was incredibly difficult to contain my giddiness when I had the opportunity to feed the lemurs?? Lemurs are one of my favorite animals, and this was certainly a unique experience. They absolutely do like to "move it, move it"... when you're holding their favorite treats - grapes! 


Okay, maybe I wasn't so skilled at hiding my glee. I just took notice of that look of awe on my face. You haven't lived until you've seen the happiness of a lemur when it gets its sweet little hands on a juicy grape. They really are so very gentle and lovable. You can be a lemur's best friend for a moment, too - for just $20! This is a very limited experience, so you're sure to have some personal time ogling these wonderfully enchanting little creatures. 
The animals of Safari Wilderness are the draw, but you'll soon discover that the fine folks running the ranch are equally as endearing. We cannot express the extent of our gratitude for the kindness of JJ and Jean, who went above and beyond to make this one of our most fantastic experiences to date. The best part about Safari Wilderness Ranch is that you really never know what your visit will bring. As I mentioned, the animals are free-roaming, and they are not forced to "perform" or interact in any specific manner. While JJ did a great job of angling us for encounters and observations with every species, those who were resting in the distance were left to do so, undisturbed. The primary concern of the staff is to allow the animal residents freedom and natural living. They've studied the animals they keep, and provided them with habitats that allow them to thrive. Remember, this is a working ranch and licensed agricultural center first and foremost - we are just respectful guests given the privilege of stopping in to say hello.

To view our extended photo album from our safari, click here. For more information on Safari Wilderness Ranch, please follow them on Twitter and Facebook.