Couples + Family

Go Wild: Where to Take the Kids on an Animal Safari in Orlando

Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Photo: Courtesy Disney)

Thanks to its swampy terrain, Orlando is known more for alligators than exotic animals, especially the African, Asian and Australian creatures most commonly found in American zoos. But magical creatures like impalas and bongos, warthogs and Thomson’s gazelles do reside here. In fact, Central Florida is home to three safari experiences, each offering a distinct way to replicate the feel of the wildlife adventures offered in, say, Botswana or Tanzania.

Giraffe Ranch

You’ll see giraffes at any zoo, sure. Likely zebras and rhinos too. But you won’t get to sit in an open-sided vehicle or atop a camel and place leafy tree branches and cut melon right into the animals’ mouths. At this Dade City savanna, owners Lex Salisbury and his wife, Elena Sheppa, take small groups on African-style safaris around the 47-acre property that they call home.

The couple makes each tour educational yet interactive and even pretty darn funny. The animals, who live full-time on the land — in the open, as they would in their natural habitats — put on the best show of all. Hint: It’s worth the extra fee to feed the adorable lemurs.

Safari Wilderness

At 260 acres, Safari Wilderness dwarfs its sister property, Giraffe Ranch. Here, you’ll be up close and quite personal with a more diverse collection of African and Asian four-legged creatures, which are divided on the expansive savanna by continent of origin. In fact, entire groups of Defassa Waterbuck and an African wetlands species of antelope might be seen dashing across a meadow or grazing in a field.

Your two- to-three-hour tour by open-sided vehicle or camelback will involve tossing food to water buffalo and watching them scurry over to eat it. Your small-group guide will offer intriguing information and give knowledgeable answers to your questions.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Even visitors wary of theme parks tend to enjoy this safari ride through the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve within Disney’s Animal Kingdom. During your expedition, you’ll spot animals from okapis to wildebeests lounging in an area manicured to resemble the African plains. The driver will point out whatever four-legged friends are visible.

Cheat sheets by each seat — labeled pictures of each species on display — help with animal-spotting. For a more immersive experience, sign up for the Wild Africa Trek, where you’ll traverse a rickety rope bridge.

And for a sedate, air-conditioned way to experience Animal Kingdom’s menagerie, eat lunch at Sanaa in the neighboring Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. You’ll get a front row view right out the oversized windows.