March 23, 2003
By Kathy Bushouse
· When she was a girl, Arlene Owens and her
friends used to pick their way through the muck
and swamp of then-undeveloped Boca Raton to the
fence that separated a sprawling theme park from
civilization, and they would wait.
If they were lucky, and they often were, Owens
and her friends would spy one of the wild
creatures roaming 177 acres that comprised Africa
U.S.A., a 1950s cageless, open-air theme park
where the main attraction was a tram ride from
which people could watch the menagerie wander the
untamed Boca Raton plain. Those days, a tram ride
to see the animals cost about $1.50. Tourists
paid gladly, but locals got their kicks for free,
"We kids would always sneak through [the
muck]," said Owens, a Boca Raton native who
still makes her home here. "The ostriches
would come up, the zebras, to the back fence."
These days, the zoo is the Camino Gardens
neighborhood and there are only a few remnants of
the Boca Raton theme park -- the lake that is an
offshoot of the El Rio Canal, the rock base of
the old Watusi Geyser that each hour shot water
160 feet into the air, and the fabulous 30-foot
Zambezi Falls, now obscured by tangles of trees
On Saturday, Camino Gardens residents came out to
mark the 50th anniversary of the park, which
closed in 1961 after new residents to Boca Raton
began to complain about their exotic neighbors.
They dedicated a plaque in honor of the long-gone
attraction, celebrated their neighborhood's
quirky past and got a bit of an Africa U.S.A.
history lesson from the family of John Pedersen,
the park's founder.
"It really was a family effort," said
Ginger Pedersen, granddaughter of the Africa U.S.A.
founder. "It's something you would not find
today." She set up a Web site, www.africa-usa.com, to commemorate the park's
In Africa U.S.A.'s heyday, mom-and-pop
attractions like Orlando's Gatorland and Miami's
Monkey Jungle were a staple of the Florida
landscape, before corporate-owned parks such as
Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld
came to be.
The Africa U.S.A. attraction was a dream come
true for John Pedersen, who longed to create a
place that looked like Africa and where animals
could roam free and not live in cages, said his
daughter, Shirley Schneider.
Though almost all of Boca Raton's residents moved
here long after Africa U.S.A. sold its animals
and left Boca Raton, some who turned out Saturday
remembered their long-ago visits to the park.
Owens recalled the cheetahs and the baby elephant
that Pedersen used to bring to Africa U.S.A.'s
front gate to show off to passers-by. As a girl,
Owens got the chance to sit on that elephant, and
she watched it grow until it became too big to
bring out to the park's front gate.
Owens also remembers sitting in the park area
next to the lake, where people were allowed free
of charge; money had to be paid only to ride on
the tram or on the park's boat.
People would sit and watch the faux geyser erupt
every hour, she said. "You came all the
time, just to see the geyser," Owens said.
"That thing was spectacular."
Kathy Bushouse can be reached at email@example.com