The hunter stalks his prey. The
animal, sensing a presence, stops grazing
and sniffs the air, ears twitching. The hunter raises his…camera.
Such is a typical moment on safari in Florida, where a vast wilderness interior is alive with native and exotic animals, including birds, panthers, deer and the big reptile everyone wants to see—the alligator. Some exist in the wild, while others are at home on huge reserves and preserves that mimic the wild in every way, except that they offer tours to meeting groups eager to get out and experience the untamed side of Florida.
One of the newest of options just opened in March—Safari Wilderness Ranch (www.safariwilderness.com), a 260-acre preserve outside Lakeland in Central Florida. It is home to Watusi cattle and the scimitar-horned oryx—the latter virtually extinct in the wild—as well as herds of zebra and both waterbuck and blackbuck antelope. Guests traverse the ranch via customized safari trucks, but they can also opt for a horse-drawn carriage tour or even a safari by camel, which often results in more interaction with the animals because you basically become part of the herd. Every safari, though, includes animal encounters, promises Diane Bedard, the ranch’s director of marketing and public relations.
“We have five or six water buffalo, and they come right up to the safari truck in what we call ‘the world’s slowest stampede,’” Bedard says. “Part of our mission here is to make sure people connect with these animals. We believe that by connecting on a personal basis, it makes people more aware of biodiversity.
“And when you’re running around in a convention, it’s good to get out and commune with nature—it’s healing for the soul,” she adds.
Lemur and budgie feedings are part of the fun, as are new arrivals within the herds.
“We have animal babies all the time,” Bedard says.
If you want to herd your own group together for a special event, Safari Wilderness Ranch offers an 11,000-square-foot, air-conditioned “welcome barn,” along with a two-story viewing platform set in the center of the ranch overlooking the various pastures.
Wildlife sightings in Central Florida continue with Florida EcoSafaris (www.floridaecosafaris.com) at Forever Florida in St. Cloud, where open-air coaches travel deep into a 4,700-acre conservation area as guides point out alligators, black bears, white-tail deer and the endangered Florida panther. Another option is guided horseback safaris that cut through nine distinct Florida ecosystems and include a trot through local Bull Creek.
Newly launched at Florida EcoSafaris is a single “ecopark” ticket that includes the safari tours and a variety of zipline experiences, including the new Cypress Canopy Cycle, featuring cycle-type vehicles suspended from steel cables that are pedaled at treetop level through pine flatwoods and forested wetlands. Look down and you might see one of the preserve’s familiar faces—a 60-year-old gator who’s been known to swim along beneath the cyclists and zip-liners zooming by overhead.
“He’s very friendly,” claims Matt Duda, the park’s director of sales and marketing.
Duda notes that Florida EcoSafaris also added another zip-line adventure that starts atop a “challenge tower” and simulates a free-fall. “It’s about getting over your fears, so it’s great for team building,” he says.
Another new zip holds the rider Superman-style, connected at the back, allowing him or her to “fly” for 1,200 unimpeded feet.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Duda says.
Luckily, though, you won’t need X-ray vision to take in a panorama of wildlife areas that would be inaccessible on foot.
Also amazing is the experience of being aboard a refurbished school bus—painted “camo” style to blend in—and splashing through Southwest Florida’s Telegraph Cypress Swamp as the skilled guides of Babcock Wilderness Adventures (www.babcockwilderness.com) keep their eyes peeled for local plants and animals, including domestic cracker cattle, Osceola turkeys, a variety of wading birds and unique air plants.
Operated out of the massive Crescent B Ranch near Punta Gorda, Babcock swamp tours can accommodate up to 120 at a time, though smaller groups may opt for the four-hour Cypress Lodge Heritage Tours that include lunch at a hunting lodge once used by the Babcock family, original owners of the land.
See it Like a Native
South of Lake Okeechobee on the northern side of the Everglades, adventures are hosted Seminole-style at Billie Swamp Safari (www.billieswamp.com), set on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. Living in harmony with the environment is a priority here, as visitors discover on swamp buggy and airboat rides through cypress domes and tropical hardwood hammocks, glimpsing panthers, alligators, deer, antelope, bison, snakes, southern razorback hogs and countless bird species. The 2,200-acre wildlife park also features reptile and birds of prey shows, and an authentic Seminole village showcases tribal life.
“Being outdoors clears your mind, and you get to know the real Florida,” says Melissa Sherman, Billie’s director of marketing. “You also learn about the native culture here. It enhances your image of Florida.”
Immerse yourself in native culture even further by combining Billie Swamp Safari with a stop at the nearby Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, where exhibits and artifacts illustrate how the ancestors of modern tribe members lived in the swamps that once covered the lower third of the Florida peninsula.
“Across from the museum is an RV resort with a clubhouse, so groups can meet, tour the museum, then go out to Billie Swamp Safari,” Sherman says.
The entire experience can then culminate in an overnight stay in Billie’s camping village, featuring accommodations for up to 10 in traditional chickees (thatched-roof dwellings).
But if time is limited, try a drive-through adventure at Lion Country Safari (www.lioncountrysafari.com) in western Palm Beach County, where a speed limit of 15 mph allows your group to meander through indigenous regions—including the Serengeti and the American West—to view elephants, lions, ostriches, wildebeest and many other animals that roam freely. Windows up or down—your choice.
“We can’t predict how the animals will behave, but the herds act like they do in the wild,” says Maritza Clark, event manager at the attraction.
The meetings oasis at Lion Country Safari is a 4,000-square-foot pavilion with seating for up to 500.
“It definitely takes you away from that meeting room atmosphere,” Clark says.
The experience of dining on safari, complete with massive tents and luxurious British Colonial furnishings, is offered at Ngala Private Reserve (www.ngala.net), set on 42 acres east of Naples and specializing in corporate events for groups of 20-1,000 in a variety of settings, including the expansive Oasis Lawn.
In addition to sumptuous banquets—prime buffalo tenderloin and safari ostrich picadillo, anyone? —Ngala offers animal encounters with chimpanzees, giraffes and a variety of African game animals as well as team-building opportunities that include group drumming sessions. Group events can also be enhanced by roaming musicians and dance ensembles, or you might watch cigar rollers and living orchids in action.