Long-closed safari park was once Boca Raton's wild side

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Kathy Bushouse

Staff Writer

BOCA RATON 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, Owens said.
"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 and brush.
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 history.
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 kbushouse@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6641.



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