If you’re looking for a break from all the amusement parks while visiting Florida, take some time to wander through a few of the amazing animal parks near Tampa Bay. Here are some of our favourites...
Safari Wilderness Ranch
Much closer than Africa, your safari tour travels through 260 acres of wilderness to see over 400 species of African, Asian and American animals. This is not a zoo; the animals live happily on expanses of land, much as they would do in the wild.
One unique aspect of the park is the opportunity to tour the grounds on a camel. You can still choose the more-standard vehicle tour, but how often do you get to ride a camel? All tours include the services of a knowledgeable guide who will point out animals and provide information about their lives, habitats and status in the wild.
The Ranch is located between Tampa and Orlando in the middle of the Green Swamp. The number of visitors is limited to protect the animals and reservations are recommended, especially if you would like the camel expedition or want to engage in one of the special lemur or guinea pig feedings. For the best chance of seeing babies, plan your trip in late spring, when most of the young animals are up and walking and out in the open.
This is a working game ranch that specializes in exotic animals, including giraffes, camels, rhinos and pygmy hippos. The rolling countryside is a mix of pasture and wetlands, providing a variety of environments for the animals and a chance for you to see the beautiful orchids and sandhill cranes that take advantage of the protected space.
There are interactive tours where you can feed giraffes, pet the camels and get surprisingly close to the rhinos. You also get a chance to see one of the largest herds of the tiny Dexter cattle in Florida. The ranch has a number of other herd animals such as ostrich and zebra, and also some unique large herds of endangered species. The guide will take you through the ranch, discussing the animals and the efforts the ranch is making for conservation.
Giraffe Ranch is near Green Swamp, Florida’s second largest wilderness area. Tours are by reservation only and are conducted twice a day. Group sizes are limited and the tour is educational as well as fun.
Big Cat Rescue
The world’s largest big cat rescue sanctuary is devoted to providing a permanent home to exotic cats that have been abused, abandoned, retired from circuses or saved from slaughter. The sanctuary provides 67 acres for the more than 100 cats, allowing them to spend the rest of their lives in safety and comfort.
In addition to rescuing big cats, the sanctuary is working towards saving endangered cat species from extinction. As you visit the lions, tigers, leopards, servals and other cats, you’ll learn about the threats to their environment and what you can do to help protect them. The bobcat release program, for example, rehabilitates injured bobcats and releases them into the wild near their original capture site.
Big Cat Rescue is five minutes from downtown Tampa and offers a 90-minute walking tour. They emphasize that they are a sanctuary, not a zoo.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park
This was once a tourist attraction but was taken over by the State Park System and is now used as a rehabilitation centre for injured animals that are native to Florida.
The manatee are the most popular animal in the park and they are almost always showing off for the visitors. Many people also enjoy the alligators – especially during feeding time. Other animals can be seen along the walkway and an underwater observatory lets you watch the manatees as they swim. Rangers are on hand to answer questions and provide information. A few residents from the park’s former days remain, and Lu the hippo is a favourite among locals.
Homosassa Springs is north of Tampa near Homosassa Bay, but is worth the drive for the best viewing of water wildlife. The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is nearby and both places can easily fill a day.
Busch Gardens is one of the largest zoos in North America. The gardens' Serengeti Plain has hundreds of animals in their natural habitat, on expansive grassy fields.
A number of ways to visit the plains are available, including a self-guided tours that take you to raised viewpoints that give you a clear view of the fields below. Guided tours can also be taken, or try the skyride over the plains to get a bird's eye view of the park.
Busch Gardens is eight miles northeast of Tampa and easily reached by vehicle or the Shuttle from Orlando. This is an excellent option if travelling with young children or those with limited mobility.
Lowry Park Zoo
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With its large variety of animals and the park’s proximity to Tampa, the zoo is great for those who want to see animals, but have limited time.
Over 1,000 animals live in natural habitats in the zoo’s 56 acres. The area is easily-navigated some interactive areas let you get close to the animals. With educational programs, animal shows and premium tours, a day at the zoo is great for families.
Lowry Park Zoo is north of Tampa and open daily. The park can be easily reached using the city bus.