Safari animals may be coming to Polk County’s Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo in late 2022, based on a proposal currently under review by Polk County officials.
The animals won’t include lions or tigers, but non-aggressive animals such as water buffalo, giraffes, deer and other hooved animals will be featured in the 45-to-50-acre safari area on the grounds of the resort. The animals will be the types that can be safely contained and that interact well with their beastly cohorts. They will be housed in fenced shelters that comply with Florida Fish & Wildlife regulations.
While most of the animals will be peaceable critters, there will, however, be an alligator exhibit contained in a set area of the safari experience because, well, this is Florida.
“Our goal is to create a unique immersive and interactive experience where guests can drive through the safari on golf carts or narrated guided trams,” said Mark Waltrip, Chief Operating Officer of Westgate Resorts of Orlando. “The safari has been specifically designed in very large open fields to allow the animals to replicate their natural habitat with large oak canopies for natural shade.”
Waltrip said the fields would be separated from the cart paths with a double-layer barrier between the guests and the large animals. But there will also be spots where guests can interact directly with “soft”, “petting zoo”-type animals. In addition, there will be education areas focusing on the animals along with a picnic area that will have a playground.
Waltrip said plans include 10 luxury treehouses, with the ability to add more in the future.
The safari area will be located on current resort land bordered by the Kissimmee River, undevelopable tracts of land to the west, farmland to the north and the Kicco Wildlife Management area to the south, according to a document submitted by planner consultants VHB of Orlando. The attraction is not expected to increase the area population or demand for local services.
Polk County officials have reacted “very positively” to the proposal, Waltrip said. But the project must still undergo a review and approval process that will take a few months. The timeshare company is seeking to amend the resort’s master plan to convert the area that was set aside as a future golf resort into the safari area.
Chanda Bennett, Polk County Comprehensive Land Planning Administrator, said the company must still provide additional information about the site to define the requested use.
Bennett said the proposal is scheduled to go before the county Planning Commission on November 3. Bennett added that the company will have to file an engineered site plan and may need building permits. The project must also meet the requirements of the County’s Land Development Code.
Waltrip was optimistic that the process would move smoothly.
“We expect to have full permits by the end of this year and completion of the project before the end of 2022,” Waltrip said, adding that the project most likely will open in the third quarter.
Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo is a working dude ranch in Polk County with more than 1,700 acres of land. The resort already manages more than 200 animals in its existing dude ranch.
The resort is known for “glamping,” a luxury camping experience. It bills itself as an authentic Florida dude ranch and “one of the last untouched pieces of Florida wilderness.” It is located one hour south of Orlando.
Among other things the resort features 800-square-foot teepees with private bathrooms and clawfoot tubs along with stone fireplaces that act as a divider between the living/dining room and the bedroom. It also has several hundred RV spaces in wooded areas.
Safari-themed attractions have long been a tourist draw in Florida, beginning in the late 1960s with the opening of the drive-thru Lion Country Safari theme park in Palm Beach County. Osceola County’s Wild Florida attraction recently expanded its drive-thru Safari park to 170 acres with 4 miles of driving space.