Photography by Jason Stephens
Families make memories that last a lifetime at Safari Wilderness, a secluded, open-air wildlife preserve that welcomes curious and adventurous visitors of all ages, every day.
When we venture into nature, we exit with a broader sense of the world. By getting outdoors we gain a more expansive understanding of wildlife than we do by watching TV or looking at photos. We develop a knowledge and intimacy with nature, and we recognize the necessity to conserve it.
It’s one thing to see animals sectored off in camps and cages; it is wholly another to see them up close in their natural habitat, where they have room to roam. Safari Wilderness, Central Florida’s premier safari experience, offers just that: it’s a year-round, open-air safari experience with a diverse array of activities for explorers young and old to enjoy. Visitors can join an ATV safari, kayak to an island of lemurs, ride on a camel expedition, and more — right here in Polk County.
Safari Wilderness is home to over 600 animals both exotic and domestic and offers a unique approach to wildlife experience. Each animal at Safari Wilderness has a personality, and staff members know them by name. Guides keep close watch on the animals’ well-being and provide the best possible environment for their needs. Because of Safari Wilderness’ commitment to providing a safe and uninterrupted space for animals to thrive, the ranch keeps a tight cap on the number of visitors per day.
Bordered by rich cypress domes, lush bay trees, and the 870-square-mile Green Swamp, the areas directly surrounding Safari Wilderness supply four of Florida’s major rivers. The Green Swamp is a vital area to Florida’s water supply; it acts as a reservoir to source Central and South Florida’s aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for most Floridians.
Far from the hustle and bustle of corporate and city life, Safari Wilderness reminds visitors to look up from their work and their phones to deepen their understanding of the nature that fills our beautiful state. Its environmental significance ensures that the land will never be developed, offering an expansive and natural space for animals. Only one house per 10 acres can be built in the area. It is a quiet, relaxing place to decompress.
The president and CEO of Safari Wilderness, Lex Salisbury, has dedicated his life to animal and nature conservation. Born and raised in Alaska, Salisbury spent seven years in Australia while pursuing education; he earned his bachelor’s degree in social anthropology along with his master’s degree in Australian Environmental Sciences at Griffith University.
Salisbury has been to Africa 30 times and is a highly experienced safari guide. His deep level of understanding is evident when talking with him about the land and animals he manages. Along with Safari Wilderness, Salisbury also co-owns and operates a sister company, Giraffe Ranch. Located in Dade City, visitors can see even more diverse animals like rhinos, zebras and cheetahs. Salisbury’s goal in launching both ventures is to promote nature conservation.
“We want to build a constituency between people and animals,” says Salisbury. “People love animals. They need them, and they need to see them up close.” Animal conservation only happens when people understand what they’re conserving, and this process is so improved by face-to-face interaction.
Animals are at home in the wide-open space at Safari Wilderness. While touring the reserve and being educated on the space, one learns that many wild animals like elephants, cheetahs, and lions are not so foreign after all. In fact, research shows that the animals at Safari Wilderness evolved here in North America and thrive in Florida’s warm climate.
“Animals here actually see a longer life expectancy than normal,” says Jack West, one of the younger tour guides currently pursuing his masters degree in sustainable tourism. He began working with Salisbury when he was in high school, and has worked there since the ranch opened in 2012. “Right now, I’m learning by doing,” he says. West has gained a thorough understanding of ranch operations and each animal that inhabits the space. It is clear that he, along with Salisbury and fellow staff, hold a deep passion to fight for the well-being of the animal kingdom.
The team at Safari Wilderness looks forward to furthering the ranch’s ability to provide for Polk County. Their most recent addition, the car tour, was implemented in response to COVID-19 last year to allow social distancing. In a car tour, up to seven people can ride through the ranch in their own vehicle, guided and educated about the landscape through their radio. This is an innovative way to encourage holistic education about nature while remaining both safe and affordable for larger groups and families.
Ecotourism is the fastest-growing form of tourism here in Florida and serves as the primary way people build a true relationship with nature. It is designed to connect people with nature in noninvasive ways, and exists to educate and encourage support for wildlife. This is why Safari Wilderness cannot be classified as a zoo or a theme park; it is, instead, a hands-on working farm and wildlife preserve. It is licensed by the USDA and operates as an ecotourism venture by supporting the mutual flourishing of the economy and the environment in our area.
It is more important than ever to steward our resources and protect our wildlife. People are moving away from quantitative commercial attractions and toward qualitative ecotourism experiences. Safari Wilderness encourages that process by offering an opportunity to educate both ourselves and our children. As we learn about the world around us, may we put our best foot forward in maintaining the well-being of the nature we are so blessed to call “home.”
For more information and trip reservations, visit safariwilderness.com.