If you want to celebrate the season with some exotic wildlife, but don't want to deal with the cost and crowds of Disney's Animal Kingdom, you have until Dec. 23 to drive down to Lakeland's Safari Wilderness
for their Critter Christmas Safari
Located halfway between Tampa and Orlando in a 260-acre wilderness area, Safari Wilderness is a private preserve that offers intimate encounters with herds of free-roaming animals in a natural savanna-like setting.
Similar to the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction at Walt Disney World, Safari Wilderness conducts tours on customized trucks, led by experienced guides.
During the holiday season, Safari Wilderness offers a special Critter Christmas Safari. Holiday safaris depart on the hour, every hour, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are available on location, and advance reservations are not required. Admission costs $39 for one guest, $75 for two, or $145 for four, and includes a poinsettia for each visitor.
On our 45-minute Critter Christmas Safari, we had up-close experiences with water buffalo, zebras, deer, llamas and other wildlife. Unlike Disney's animal encounters, we got close enough to touch and even feed many of the animals, who were so eager for our treats that some tried to climb aboard our truck.
Our guide, who was previously a tiger groomer for Ringling Brothers, did an exceptional job of spotting the creatures and explaining their role in the ecosystem.
In addition to the driving tour, Safari Wilderness features several walk-through habitats and optional animal encounters, including a peacock aviary, lemurs, camels, and guinea pigs.
If you miss the last Critter Christmas Safari on Dec. 23, Safari Wilderness conducts two-plus-hour tours year-round. Pricing starts at $90 per person and advance reservations are required; visit the Safari Wilderness website