Lisa Jennings (L) and I feeding grapes to ring-tailed lemurs.

Ring-tailed lemurs hop from branch to branch before perching on a wooden railing, greedily grabbing the grapes from our hands with their soft paws and plopping the juicy morsels into their eager mouths. The water buffalo who rubbed up against the sides of our open-air canopied safari bus were nearly as gentle, even as their long, wet tongues curled around the offered tootsie roll-shaped treats.
Lemurs and water buffalo are just some of the 450 animals representing 55 species of mostly African and Asian hoof stock that roams the 260 acres of Safari Wilderness Ranch, a family-owned, licensed game ranch surrounded by cattle farms tucked neatly along back roads of Lakeland, Florida, in the Green Swamp area.

You leave the parking lot and seeming civilization for entry into The Green Swamp environmental area.

Although owners Lex Salisbury and Stephen Wehrmann opened Safari Wilderness to the public in 2012, neither myself or Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer of Wildly Different (a team building event company) had been aware of it. We didn’t know that once our car was parked and we walked along a winding boardwalk through lush foliage, that a calm quiet would accompany us to the two-story 13,000 square foot lodge that holds a gift store, registration, and space for weddings, receptions and corporate functions.
Safari Wilderness is not a theme park with music blaring or packed crowds jostling to stand in queues for another attraction, but it is a park that offers hands-on adventures with animals and fowl in natural habitats.
Would you like to experience the animals from the back of one of the dromedary or Bactrian camels, either in an expedition group or for a short ride? You may enjoy navigating the freshwater areas to lemur island in a kayak. But if sitting back and being a spectator is more your speed, canopied bus safaris are available for one hour or two-and-a-half hour tours.

Fallow deer repose in the shade.

A camel ride built for two?

Ranch Manager Emily Jaffe guided us first to the ring-tailed lemur habitat, supplying us with the grapes to feed them, before showing us around the lodge, the surrounding property and animals who inhabit it, such as pigs or the African crested porcupine that Jaffe quickly explained does not (contrary to popular myth) shoot out its quills. Like all the ranch staff we met and chatted with, each has an extensive background in caring for animals.
Safari Wilderness Ranch is accredited by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Lex Salisbury has over 35 years of experience with exotic animals, having worked in zoos in England, Australia, and the US since 1978. His love for giraffes (who need dryer ground than Safari Wilderness has) led him to open a sister facility, Giraffe Ranch in Dade City, Florida.

Safari Lodge, a two-story event venue with wide windows overlooking View Pasture.

Emily said the lodge is frequently bought out for weddings, receptions and corporate events. Puff n Stuff Catering is the in-house caterer, but clients can bring in their own catering as well. “While the catering is being set up, the hosts often send their guests out on the safari buses for an hour tour of the ranch. Corporate groups frequently do the full two-and-a-half hours.”
From the second floor, the large windows overlook View Pasture. Farther out, in the middle of the 260 acres, is the Tree House, a sturdy open-walled event space for up to 75 people that also offers close-up animal viewing.
During the tours, guests may see animals with which they are familiar, like warthogs, monkeys or lions. Then again, you will also likely see more exotic animals such as eland, red lechwe, sitatunga, waterbuck, Grant’s zebra, Watusi cattle, barasingha, axis deer, fallow deer, water buffalo, or nilgai.

Tree house in middle of Safari Wilderness can hold up to 75 for a reception.

Water buffalo feed from your hands. The treats are provided by staff.

Lisa and I didn’t see all those on our hour tour, but with the humorous and very knowledgeable J.J to guide our safari bus through the property, making stops to let us feed many of the animals, we had the thrill of being on a safari without having to pack our bags or passport.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2016 – 2017 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the second consecutive year. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

4 replies
  1. tmlwrites
    tmlwrites says:

    This is amazing – I, too, have never heard of this place! Great share, Karen. Plus, I’ve always had a secret desire to ride a camel and even though I’d prefer it be in a more exotic location I really do have no excuse now not to do it! Thanks.

  2. karen kuzsel
    karen kuzsel says:

    I’ve been slobbered on by a couple camels, but haven’t climbed aboard one. Glad you enjoyed this story. Really a pretty cool, hidden treasure in our backyard that could be excellent for a retreat.

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