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Wednesday, July 11, 2002

Boynton woman keeps memories of theme park alive

By Linda Haase, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 11, 2002

John Pedersen had one thought as he drove through Boca Raton in the 1940s: "This is the deadest town I have ever seen. I am going to wake up this town."

His plan didn't include pink buildings or gated communities. He had something much more natural in mind -- the county's first theme park. Called Africa U.S.A., it offered visitors an unobstructed view of hundreds of animals, including baboons, a rare horse-zebra, gazelles, camels, elephants and wildebeests.

Visitors could tour the 300-acre park free and even feed the animals, which were not caged. An optional $2 open tram ride offered them a chance to get up close to many of the park's more than 20 species of animals and see a re-created African village and savannah. The park also included tropical plants, a 30-foot waterfall and a geyser.

All the animals were from Africa. John's son, Jack, spent seven months there collecting them. While there, he met Richard Cade, who helped round up the animals and accompanied Pedersen on a 40-day ocean journey back to Florida.

The park, which was open from 1953 to 1961, is now the site of the Camino Gardens subdivision. All that remains is part of the lagoon and the geyser base.

But John's granddaughter, Ginger Pedersen, wants people to know about Africa U.S.A., which made the cover of Life magazine in 1960.

"I want people to remember it. There is very little information about it. It kind of got lost in the glitz of Boca. This was a huge undertaking and something you couldn't do today. My grandfather had a gift of being able to see things as they could be rather than as they are," said Pedersen, an associate dean at Palm Beach Community College.

The 38-year-year old Boynton Beach resident has set up a comprehensive Web site ( that offers everything from the park's history to behind-the-scenes views of the animals that lived with the Pedersens. And by a fluke, she was connected with Cade, who shares his memories on the Web site.

She also wants to talk to people who visited the park. "I'm looking for souvenirs people might have from there so I can take pictures and put them on the Web site. I'm also looking for photos people took while they were visiting there. I'd love to have a page with snapshots of people who visited there."

She's also planning, along with the Camino Gardens homeowners association, a commemoration for what would have been the park's 50th anniversary in February.

Although the park had closed by the time Pedersen was born, she heard captivating tales about it from her father and grandfather. And she has lots of scrapbooks and movies about it from the pair, who are now deceased.

"I can walk around the property and imagine what it was like. I often wonder if people digging in their yard come across any bones. I wonder what kind of artifacts are there. I'm sure people have found things over the years," she said.

She also has the memories of the stories her dad and grandfather told her. Like the story about the cheetahs, Mojah and Mbili, who rode shotgun in her dad's convertible around Boca Raton. "He loved them. They were his pets," she said.

A Hollywood producer spotted the pair and they were featured in the Academy Award-winning film, Quo Vadis as Emperor Nero's wife's personal pets. But the two, who were as tame as house cats, had a day job they had to get back to.

They were some of the stars at Africa U.S.A., along with Princess Margaret, a chimp who was featured on The Tonight Show with Jack Parr.

"She was my grandparents' pet and she lived in their house. They taught her how to kiss people. My grandfather would take her to the Boca Raton Club to do a show. She was always dressed in lacy outfits," Pedersen said.

The Pedersens' love of animals extends to Ginger Pedersen. "But I have cats... normal cats."

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