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Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Boca's Africa U.S.A. animal park beat Disneyland for 'Life' cover

By Eliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Q: Wasn't there an animal park in Boca Raton in the 1960s?

A: It was Africa U.S.A., and it made the cover of a 1960 Life magazine issue on amusement parks, while a little place in California called Disneyland was barely mentioned. It was a hit 15 years before Lion Country Safari came to suburban West Palm Beach.

Not long after World War II, John P. "Pete" Pedersen had an idea to spice up the then-quiet hamlet of Boca Raton. He bought 300 acres, planted thousands of tropical trees and built a 30-foot waterfall, and sent his son Jack to Africa to bring back animals who roamed free inside double 8-foot fences.

Africa U.S.A. opened in February 1953, luring tourists with billboards mounted up and down the state, including one on Federal Highway in Deerfield Beach, which directed tourists with a giant arrow.

The 177-acre spread, one of Florida's original wild animal attractions, hosted hundreds of exotic animals and drew as many as 2,000 tourists a day. Admission was free, but visitors paid to ride trams for a 6-mile, one-hour tour of Tanganyika, the country Pedersen invented. At Jungle Town, visitors were greeted by "Masai Warriors," most of whom commuted from nearby Pompano Beach.

By the early '60s, the suburbs crept in. Pedersen later had an extended zoning battle with the city. And early in 1961, federal agriculture agents found the first-ever North American outbreak of African red ticks. Pedersen had to destroy thousands of dollars worth of animals. Fed up, he sent off his animals and closed down. In October 1961, he sold the land, which he had bought for about $10,000, to developers for $1.1 million. That site is now the Camino Gardens neighborhood.

Pedersen died quietly at 98 in 1996. Recently, his granddaughter, Ginger Pedersen, created a Web page to honor the creator and his exotic creation.

Africa U.S.A. Web page:

Boca Raton Historical Society: 561-395-6766.

The "Post Time" column will answer your questions about local history. Submit your questions -- along with your name and home town -- to
Post Time, The Palm Beach Post
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Delray Beach, Fla. 33445.
Call 820-3467 or 279-3467.
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