Readers: This month, other sections of The Palm Beach Post mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Lion Country Safari, west of West Palm Beach, which opened Aug. 29, 1967. Its unique theme: visitors are “caged” and the animals roam free.
Regular readers of Post Time know, of course, that another attraction had the idea years earlier. It was Africa-U.S.A.
Here’s more from March 2003 Palm Beach Post feature articles and February 2002 and August 2011 Post Time columns:
Once, the quiet Camino Gardens neighborhood, west of downtown Boca Raton, was a mysterious land of exotic beasts and lush tropical vegetation and one of Florida’s original wild animal attractions.
A plaque marks the lagoon and the rusted base of the 260-foot geyser. They are the only surviving remnants of the park, which predated Lion Country Safari by 15 years and pushed an obscure California competitor named Disneyland off the front page of Life magazine in 1960.
Not long after World War II, John D. “Pete” Pedersen had an idea to spice up the then-quiet hamlet of Boca Raton.
He bought 300 acres, planted thousands of tropical trees and built a 30-foot waterfall and sent his son to Africa to bring back animals that roamed free inside double 8-foot fences.
Africa-U.S.A. opened in February 1953. The 177-acre spread would draw up to 2,000 visitors a day.
Admission was free, but visitors paid to ride trams for a 6-mile, one-hour tour of Tanziniki, the country Pedersen invented.
Besides the hundreds of animals, there was a 260-foot “Zambezi Falls” waterfall and the Watusi Geyser. Their remnants are the only physical remains of the park. Pedersen wanted his own “Old Faithful,” so he created the Watusi geyser by building a hill and connecting the pipes to the pump assembly that ran the waterfall.
At Jungle Town, visitors were greeted by “Masai Warriors,” most of whom commuted from nearby Pompano Beach.
By the early 1960s, the suburbs crept in. Pedersen later had a long zoning battle with the city. Then early in 1961, federal agriculture agents found the first-ever North American outbreak of African red ticks. Pedersen had to destroy thousands of dollars worth of animals. Fed up, he sent off his animals and closed down.
In October 1961, he sold the land, which he had bought for about $10,000, to developers for $1.1 million.
Ginger Pedersen, a dean at Palm Beach State College, has almost single-handedly kept alive her grandfather’s vision. She has gathered scrapbooks and old movies. Her Web page, www.africa-usa.com, details the history of the park and gives behind-the-scenes views. She also has become a prolific local historian and author, who has her own competing history column — drat!— but who also is a frequent Post Time collaborator.
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