Take the family on a Labor Day trip to an animal park


Lion Country Safari guests can drive their own cars along a 4-mile paved road and see herds of rhinoceroses, zebras, buffaloes and more. (Courtesy photo)

Published: Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 1:26 p.m.

Labor Day — the official end of summer — is here and what better way to usher in the start of fall than squeezing in one last day trip.

After a soggy week, a road trip to outdoor parks should be a welcome change. And a day trip to enjoy a close encounter with wildlife might help tide the family over until classes break again — in November and December.

Several attractions in Florida offer incredible access to animals, and allow kids to have fun and learn at the same time. Below is a guide to Giraffe Ranch in Dade City, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Gatorland in Orlando and Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee.

Lion Country Safari

Address: 2003 Lion Country Safari Road, Loxahatchee, www.lioncountrysafari.com, 561-793-1084

Travel Time: 4 hours, 8 minutes

Estimated duration of visit: 4-6 hours

Tickets: $27.50 adults, $24.50 for ages 65 and older, $20.50 for children

Not far from West Palm Beach is an animal attraction that has entertained and educated more than 22 million guests since 1967.

Lion Country Safari features more than 900 animals from just less than 100 species that can be found on six of the seven continents.

The main attraction is a 4-mile, drive-through safari where guests drive their own cars on a paved road and see large herds of rhinoceroses, zebras, buffaloes and more.

"It's definitely a different opportunity than visiting a regular zoo because you'll see many more of each species," said Jennifer Berthiaume, director of public relations and marketing at Lion Country Safari.

If you go to the website, guests can save $8 on each paying ticket.

Gatorland

Address: 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, www.gatorland.com, 407-855-5496

Travel time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Duration of visit: 4-5 hours

Tickets: Florida resident rates, $9.99 through Sept. 30; $69.99, zip line (includes park access)

There are more than 1,500 alligators and crocodiles scattered throughout 70-plus acres at Gatorland. Gatorland allows you to get close and see some of Florida's most famous creatures. Guests should definitely check out the four leucistic alligators that have white skin and blue eyes. Tim Williams, director of media relations at Gatorland, said they have four of the 15 known leucistic alligators in the world. Its latest attraction is the Screamin' Gator Zip Line, where riders go along a 1,200-foot line suspended over several alligator pens.

There are several educational shows and alligator wrestling demonstrations throughout the day.

"If you hold something, or touch something, you have a better understanding when they talk about alligator hides or alligator backs and the feathers on a bird, or what have you," Williams said.

Other attractions include an aviary and petting zoo.

Giraffe Ranch

Address: 38650 Mickler Road, Dade City

Travel time: 1 hour, 7 minutes

Estimated duration of visit: 90 minutes to 2 hours

Admission: By reservation only, 813-482-3400

Tickets: $59.99 adults, $49.99 for ages 2-11, $54.99 for ages 65 and older. Free for ages 2 and younger. Cash or check only.

Giraffe Ranch allows you to get close — and I mean in-your-face close — to giraffes, rhinos and camels. The ranch features more than 250 animals from 35 species. The main attraction is a guided tour over 35 acres of the ranch in a large, covered truck that allows you to see the property and get close to plains zebras, Indian rhinoceroses and other animals. The highlight is when Rothschild Giraffes stick their heads into the vehicle and you get to feed them. During the whole experience, the group is guided by a staff member giving details about the history of the land, the ranch and the animals you'll encounter. Giraffe Ranch owner Elena Sheppa said the goal of the ranch is to have a hands-on experience. "The whole idea is we want it to be safe but we want people to view them in the most natural way possible but in as intimate a way (possible)," Sheppa said.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Address: 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater,www.seewinter.com, 727-441-1790.

Travel time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Estimated duration of Visit: 4-6 hours

Tickets: $14.95-$17.95

Clearwater Marine Aquarium has become a popular attraction since the feature film "Dolphin Tale" was released last year about its most famous resident. The aquarium is a nonprofit working animal hospital where each animal in the facility has been deemed non-releasable. "Every animal that comes through this door has come through for a reason, which is really cool because we use them as ambassadors of their species," said Krista Rosado, director of marketing and advertising at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

But the most famous ambassador is Winter the Dolphin. Winter's story of losing her tail and getting a prosthetic has become well-loved by children and adults. Winter is viewable at all times and there are educational shows throughout the day (times subject to change). Admission includes access to Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, a museum featuring all sorts of behind the scenes material from the film and an exhibit about effects of a hurricane.

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