If your family is looking for an adventure this summer, consider traveling to Winston, Oregon, to visit Wildlife Safari – where YOU are captive, and the animals roam free! This place strives for the highest quality interaction with wildlife and inspires lifelong commitments to conservation, education, and the preservation of native and exotic species. The park is spread over 600 acres where visitors can interact with over 550 animals representing their wild counterparts from all around the globe and is the only drive-through animal park in the state. The park opened in 1972 and is now home to over 200,00 visitors annually. Tickets range in price from $17.95 to $23.95 and can be purchased online for a particular date. Tickets can also be purchased at the gate, but beware that on some days (especially weekends in the summer), availability is limited due to the high volume of visitors.
During the 60-90 minute drive-through experience, guests can see ostrich, Watusi cattle, lions, zebra, hippos, the scimitar-horned oryx, rhinos, giraffes, bears, bison, elk, African elephants, emu, yak, and white-naped cranes as well as the critically endangered Sumatran Tigers. There are some feeding opportunities throughout the drive-through experience, and there are many photo opportunities during the drive. Personally, I first went to Wildlife Safari when the park was only a few years old in the 70s, and it was a truly amazing experience and one that has resonated with me throughout my life! The park has grown substantially since then and offers so many opportunities for both adults and youngsters to engage with animals while providing invaluable educational opportunities. In our family’s experience, it is best to do the drive-through twice – the first time in the morning when the park opens, as animals are being fed and are very active. A second drive-through in the late afternoon or early evening provides a different opportunity to view these awesome creatures as they begin stirring with the setting sun. Our drive-through experience took longer than expected because our kiddos were having so much fun looking at the animals, taking pictures, and observing their behaviors.
Wildlife Safari is also renowned for its successful cheetah breeding program. Cheetahs are notoriously challenging to breed in captivity, and this organization boasts one of the top cheetah breeding research centers on Earth and is the number one cheetah breeding facility outside of Africa and number two on the planet.
The park offers various internship programs each year, and an international veterinary medicine program resides on Safari grounds. Hundreds of young students are reached each year through education programs for school-aged children, and some high school students even attend ecology, English, and mathematics classes on-site. Summer camps are also available and offer further enrichment activities for kids of all ages.
A special treat that is a must is the overnight camp opportunities. In this fantastic program, you will experience the park after hours! The campsite opens at 4:00, where you will have time to set up your tent and eat dinner (which is not provided). You will then have the opportunity to meet animal ambassadors through a hands-on animal encounter at 6:00 pm. Campers will then take a sunset tour of the drive-through in open-air vehicles and then return to camp for a campfire with s’mores. In the morning, after eating breakfast (again, not provided), you will create special treats for the animals, which campers will then give to them in a unique encounter! Our family had the opportunity to go into the lions ’enclosure (the carnivores are secured) and put these treats all over for the lions to discover. Once everybody was out, the gate was closed, and the lions were freed. They came “roaring” out, so excited to find their treats and gobble them up! We could stand right outside the gate and, at times, were within inches of these magnificent creatures! Truly a memorable experience! This overnight camping experience is designed for families, groups, and clubs. Fall asleep to the sound of crickets and frogs and wake to the awesome sound of roaring lions! It was terrific to be awakened by the gentle rumblings of the lions as they began stirring at dawn and were located just down the hill from the campsite. Typically Wildlife Safari offers overnight camps once a month in June, July, and August. But beware – these camps are incredibly popular and fill up fast! While the camps are sold out for the summer of 2023, do your research and plan in early spring to reserve your spot!
One last experience is worth mentioning. Wildlife Safari offers animal encounters with various creatures with varying group sizes. We have partaken in a number of these, and in this mom’s humble opinion, it is worth the extra cost. Our favorite encounters so far have been with the elephants and the cheetahs. We could touch the elephants and take our pictures with them (guests are inside an enclosure, and the elephants come to you for safety’s sake). The elephants also “paint” with their trunks. Art painted by these gentle giants is available for purchase, or you can have the resident painting elephant of the day make a unique painting just for you. Our kids could pick three colors they liked and then watch as the elephant painted their masterpiece on canvas (there are several options of canvas sizes). Once finished, the kids got their painting to take home. To this day, our kids still treasure their elephant art despite growing up into teenagers!
Another favorite encounter was with a cheetah. The chosen cheetah for that time’s visit was brought out on a leash by keepers and then laid on the grass near a tree. Your family could then pose behind the cheetah for a picture – which ended up becoming our holiday family picture that year. It’s important to note that no animals at the park are forced to do anything they don’t want. Elephants were waiting for us because they knew it was just about tour time, and if an elephant wasn’t in the mood to paint, another elephant volunteered. And the cheetahs are allowed to interact with guests. If they aren’t in the mood, then the keepers don’t leash them up, and they remain where they are. But the animals seem to enjoy people because they line up or come to the area where the encounters occur. The park offers all kinds of animal encounters – so choose your favorite and book them in advance, as they fill up quickly. The costs can add up if you participate in several of these encounters, so grandparents, aunts, and uncles “gifted” these experiences to our children for birthdays or Christmas. While not a tangible gift, the experiences are deeply treasured and something our kids will never forget!
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to check out Wildlife Safari at some point in the future. The park enjoys accreditation from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a designation that fewer than 10% of animal parks in the country can claim as superior animal husbandry is mandatory. While zoos are awesome to visit, Wildlife Safari is a unique experience that will make cherished memories for everyone. Go wild at Wildlife Safari!
Amy currently lives in Lake Tapps, Washington, where she lives with her family of six plus a menagerie of pets and works as an educator at both the high school and collegiate levels. She holds a B.A. in English and Expository Writing from the University of Washington and a Master’s in Teaching and teacher certification from Seattle University. She grew up on a working farm in a small logging town in SW WA and loves to travel all along the Oregon coast. When not grading papers, she enjoys reading, traveling, entertaining, gardening, crafting and doing anything with animals. She also works as a dance judge for high school competitions and is an avid blood donor.