Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Farewell Visit to Lion Country Safari

August 2, 2007 Update: Just days after I posted this entry, the Irvine Co. announced that it has agreed to extend the lease for Wild Rivers and Camp James for one more summer season. As of now, the demolition trucks won't be arriving until the fall of 2008.

When it comes to theme parks, Orange County has long been the home of two classic attractions: Disneyland (now two theme parks, technically) and Knott's Berry Farm. However, long before Tim and I were Southern California residents, there stood a third theme park: Lion Country Safari, a wild-animal themed attraction that operated in Irvine from 1970 until 1984.

A satellite photo of the one-time Lion Country Safari
A satellite photo of the one-time Lion Country Safari

It was one of those theme parks that had a drive-through reserve where you could drive among the wild animals. After driving through the safari, guests could explore the amusement park section of the property, which had such attractions as the Zambezi River Ride, Native Villages, African Auto Trek, Tots Tree House, Junior Jungle, Afritheater, Lake Shanalee and the Africamera.

The original park map.
The original park map.

One of the big Lion Country Safari celebrities of his day was Frazier, an aging Lion who came to Lion Country Safari from a Mexican circus. He surprised everyone when he fathered a litter of cubs well into his old age. He became the star of the park in its first two years, prompting a Frazier frenzy, with several park souvenirs modeled after the lion. Frazier passed away in 1972 and was buried on the grounds of the safari.

Megan at what was once the train station. (07/26/2007)
Megan at what was once the train station. (07/26/2007)

By the 1980s, attendance began to dwindle after suffering some bad publicity. Apparently there was an accident on the 405 freeway caused by a runaway elephant. And there was also an incident where park staff attempted to anesthetize an escaped hippo and accidentally caused it to drown. In retrospect, it was probably for the better that the park closed ... for the animals' sake anyway!

Interior of one of the main buildings. (07/26/2007)
Interior of one of the main buildings. (07/26/2007)

After the park closed in 1984, the management converted half of the former Lion Country Safari into a children's day camp originally called Camp Frazier (today it's called Camp James). The other half was converted into Wild Rivers, a water park that still stands there today (but not for much longer).

The old amphitheatre. (07/26/2007)
The old amphitheatre. (07/26/2007)

This October, the former Lion Country Safari coffin will get its final nail when the bulldozers wipe out Camp James and Wild Rivers to make room for the 3,700 homes The Irvine Company plans to build there.

Before the demolition takes place, I wanted to take a peek at the property. As it turns out, I have a Camp James hook-up in Megan, who is the daughter of my boss Dori. Megan is a junior counselor at Camp James. So I made arrangements to meet Dori and Megan after work so I could get the grand tour.

Lion Country Safari's Lake Shanalee today (07/26/2007)
Lion Country Safari's Lake Shanalee today (07/26/2007)

It was pretty cool. They showed me all around the camp, which has most of the buildings from the Lion Country Safari days still in tact. The grounds were gorgeous. So many big trees. The lake is beautiful too. In fact, I'd be surprised if they take it all out without keeping at least part of it as a public park amidst the 3,700 homes.

I'm just glad I got a chance to check it out before it's gone, gone, gone.

3 comments:

Aunt Cindy said...

I remember taking Amy there as a baby in her mom's old Olds Special and all of the lions were asleep and an ostrich tried to get into the car with us and my mother (Noni) had a complete meltdown. The pics were a great treat. Thank God for your connections. It makes me sad that the whole area is going to be houses soon. What about the Verizon Amphitheater? Will it have a noise limit/curfew whenthe houses are occupied?

Tom said...

I'm sure that place was cool in it's heyday, but now, I'm not kidding, that would be an awesome setting for a horror film! Those abandoned bleacher seats are so spooky looking! Yikes!!

Radar said...

I am currently doing some research on the first group of elephants imported to the California LCS in 1972. Do you have any information regarding these animals or pictures as well? Thank you for the help.