Since the original safari’s opening in 1974, it has been a do-it-yourself tour, where guests would pay $20 per person to drive their own cars among wild animals. The gregarious baboons would often dent cars and use the windshields as their personal toilet. A friend of mine admitted he even secretly fed a giraffe a Cheeto. While these experiences made the drive-through safari memorable, safety issues and damage to vehicles finally inspired the theme park to change its theme.
The ride is now a staff-guided tour in off-road vehicles, and comes included in the standard Six Flags ticket price. The entrance is nestled in the Western-themed Frontier Adventures section of the park, with the line weaving under the Saw Mill Log Flume and alongside the river that borders the park.
The open-air trucks are repurposed 5-ton survivors of the war in Afghanistan, painted in muted animal print and decorated with themed props. The tour guides are outfitted in khaki button-ups and cargo pants for an authentic safari feel.
Our guide Justin admits we are his first tour group ever, but he relaxes into a stand-up style routine and has us laughing the whole ride. He humorously points out how social media has transformed the safari into something like a web experience. As we pass a pair of bear cubs he helped raise, named Star and Scarlet, he jokes, “If this was Facebook, you would probably ‘Like’ this part.”
Since it is unwise to have herbivores and carnivores from six different continents mingling in one space, the 350-acre safari is divided into sections partitioned off with Jurassic Park-style safety gates. The animals range from North American Great Plains beasts like elk and bison, to American black bears, more-aggressive European brown bears, and Australian critters like kangaroos and emus. There are also African grazers like zebras and giraffes, fierce big cats and bathing giants like elephants and rhinos.
The herbivores graze alongside the vehicles, but dangerous carnivores like the lions and Bengal tigers remain safely behind tall barriers. The female lions arrange themselves on a tiered hill in what seems like an unstated social hierarchy, staring intensely as we intrude on their rest. “As soon as we drive away they’ll pull out cigarettes and coffee and start gossiping,” Justin jokes.
While parts of the safari feel like a drive-through zoo with its many fences and enclosures, there’s something otherworldly about watching a herd of zebras gallop across an open plain, past 18-foot tall giraffes. Prehistoric giants like white rhinos bathe in ponds alongside the same Canada geese you might encounter in a neighborhood park. The geese are the park’s “freeloaders,” says Justin. The safari lends itself to a more natural (and larger) habitat than the average zoo, making the wild animals look more at home.
The halfway point is Camp Adventura, an optional stop with a reptile house, zip-line and giraffe feeding. There’s Miss Piggy, an albino Burmese python akin to Britney Spears’s famed boa, and Chewy, the adorable two-toed sloth who sleeps in a basket with a blanket. In warmer weather, exotic birds from the rainforests of South America and Africa are supposed to perch on totem poles outside the reptile house, but during our cold, rainy visit they hide inside.
After a quick exploration of the Camp (the zip-line wasn’t running due to the weather), there is a long wait for the next truck to take us through the rest of the park. The staff acknowledges they haven’t quite worked out the timing yet, but to be fair, it is the safari’s first real day operating with guests. Everything else runs smoothly despite the inclement weather – the open-air trucks even have plastic curtains that can be rolled down to shield us from the wind and rain.
As we emerge from the jungle, soggy and shivering, the warm Best of the West dining lodge beckons. We head inside for an overpriced beer and BBQ pulled-pork slider, a welcome retreat from the cold.
This Southern Scene guest blog was written by New Jersey Monthly research assistant Joanna Buffum.