The following article was published in the April/May 1997 issue of Tourist Attractions & Parks magazine.

Lion Country Safari Study Guides Massive Renovation and Expansion

By Randy White

Lion Country Safari, located in the Palm Beaches area of Florida, is North America's first "cageless zoo" and a pioneer and continuing innovator in combining education with entertainment, a concept just starting to be embraced by many traditional zoos. The park features over 1,200 animals of 124 different species and covers over 320 acres.

This year, Lion Country Safari is celebrating its 30th anniversary with expansion of its drive-through preserve with two new preserve areas. The Kalahari Bushvelt, designed after the 500 square-mile plateau in Southwest Africa, will include a savanna-like lion habitat with state-of-the-art night quarters. The Gir Forest is modeled after a well-known National Park in India and will be home to Asian species including water buffalo, black buck and nilgai. These enhancements to the safari-style, drive-through preserve will add two miles of road and 60 acres to the preserve, bringing the open preserve total to four miles of road and 260 acres. A KOA Campground with 210 camp sites and cabins is also located in the park.

Lion Country also includes the Safari Village which guests visit after driving through the preserve. Safari Village covers 20 acres and includes a main restaurant, gift shops, a nature walk, a lake with paddle boats and the Africa Queen boat ride, a carrousel, miniature golf, a dinosaur garden, a petting zoo, amphitheater and displays of smaller animals.

Although Lion Country has been experiencing annual attendance increases for many years, the owners, the Unterhalters, decided that, in addition to expanding the preserve, the Village needed remodeling and expansion to keep the park competitive. They also wanted the Village to capture a new non-tourist market by becoming a family entertainment attraction for the local surrounding communities. After initially exploring planning the expansion on their own with the park's internal staff, they retained outside expertise from the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group of Kansas City, Missouri, to conduct a market feasibility study and prepare a master renovation and expansion plan.

White Hutchinson's initial research program was two fold. The first part was a market analysis and the second part was an evaluation of the existing facility, historic attendance and financial operating results.

The market analysis included identification and evaluation of all possible local area leisure destinations. Since Lion Country's mission was to entertain and educate and it was a nature-based attraction, White Hutchinson suspected that the strongest appeal to the local market might be as an educationally-oriented entertainment experience, often referred to as edutainment, rather than as a typical "entertainment only" family entertainment attraction. Thus, not only were local competitive entertainment attractions such as FECs and eater-tainment facilities evaluated, but nature centers, botanical gardens, zoos, science museums, children's museums and playgrounds were also evaluated.

Although the Palm Beaches area has a large number of nature-based centers and facilities, the research found that they were all oriented to middle school age children and adults. Many offered classes and field trips, but they were designed for 3rd through 5th graders. There were no age-appropriate, edutainment-oriented attractions for younger children, only several pure entertainment attractions such as a Chuck E. Cheese and go-kart and miniature golf type FECs.

The market research also found that the coastal communities north and south of the Palm Beaches similarly lacked attractions for families with younger children. With the excellent north-south interstate access, parents from those areas would often drive long distances to visit facilities with their children. Although Lion Country Safari definitely had appeal to families with young children (the majority of tourist visitors were families with children under 10), it did not have the repeat appeal needed to function successfully as a local leisure attraction. It was an attraction local residents would typically visit once, and then only again if they were taking an out-of-town visitor.

White Hutchinson identified both a local primary and secondary market area for the Village based upon drive times and psychological factors. These two market areas were expected to contain the residents who would generate 80% of the regular repeat attendance to the Village as a local attraction. Detailed 1997 and projected 2002 demographics and socio-economic/lifestyle data was obtained and analyzed. The data revealed that not only did the local market area contain a sufficient population to support a local family leisure attraction, but its socio-economics was ideally matched to an education-oriented attraction. In the primary market area, 100% of younger children belonged to college educated, white collar, middle and higher income families. Overall, 64% of the market area's children belonged to college educated, white collar families. Not only is there a direct correlation between education and out-of-home entertainment spending, but these are the knowledge-based families who are seeking leisure activities that contain an educational or learning component.

The market analysis revealed a number of other factors that indicated a likely success of a properly designed local attraction. The Palm Beaches area has a significant population of retired persons including many grandparents. In the winter, many are visited by their grandchildren, and the grandparents are looking for ways to entertain them. There is no better customer than a child accompanied by their grandparent banker.

The Palm Beaches also has a significant number of snowbird children whose families winter in their second homes in the area. This population does not show up in demographic projections. These families have significant disposable income and time.

Thirdly, the market area contained a significant number of homemakers. Although the majority of families had both parents working, there was still a large number of non-working homemakers. These were concentrated in the higher socio-economic families. Over 7,000 children 5 years and younger were in families with homemakers. These homemakers are constantly in search of places where they can meet their friends (other homemakers) and socialize while their children are entertained. Homemakers make an excellent weekday target niche market as, with the right amenities and pricing, they can be attracted to visit as often as every week.

Based upon the market area's characteristics, competition and Lion Country Safari's facilities and image, an expansion/renovation market strategy was agreed on to:

  1. increase the park's attractiveness and attendance to its core tourist market of families with children 10 years and younger, and
  2. renovate and expand the Safari Village portion of the park to become a "family edutainment" type destination for the local Palm Beaches area. The following niche markets of the local area's higher socio-economic, white-collar, college educated families would be targeted:
    • general admission families with children 10 and younger,
    • homemakers with younger children,
    • preschool and grade school field trips,
    • birthday parties for 3 to 8 year olds,
    • summer and holiday camps for 3 to 12 year olds,
    • corporate and organizational picnics, outings and fund raisers,
    • grandparent with grandchildren market, and
    • field trips from other camps.

The next step was to develop a master plan for the renovation and expansion. An important consideration of designing any attraction is operating capacity, the ability of the park and individual events to meet peak attendance. An analysis of the park's historic hourly attendance revealed that over the years attendance had grown beyond the operating capacity of much of the Safari Village, including its food and beverage operation and most events. Projections of increased attendance from the tourist market plus the addition of the local market revealed that, at peak times, as many as 4,500 guests needed to be accommodated at any one time in the Village. This meant the food and beverage facilities needed to be expanded, and the major events needed to have significant throughput increases. This became the first priority for the master plan - increased restaurant seating and adding points for food and beverage purchase plus increased capacity for the paddle boats, African Queen boat ride, carrousel and live demonstrations.

The Safari Village had previously been expanded over its 30 year history without the benefit of a master plan. As a result, it had become very piecemeal, without any intuitive organization. Orientation and way finding was very difficult, with guests constantly having to ask directions.

A new plan of organization was developed based upon the design concept of a main central walkway with major nodes or intersections, off of which would be located separate, thematically-unified worlds or areas of similar events. The individual areas would be:

  • children's edutainment center (new),
  • guest picnic area (relocated),
  • main restaurant and gift shop (expanded and renovated),
  • group, picnic and education center (new),
  • amusement area (expanded),
  • natural habitat small animal area (relocated),
  • Florida World (new).

The children's edutainment center is planned as the major attraction for the local market as well as a new amenity for the tourist guests. It will be designed for children 1 to 10 accompanied by their parents or grandparents and contain predominantly nature-based children's developmentally-appropriate, learning-through-play activities. It is called the edutainment center since younger children accomplish most of their learning through hands-on spontaneous free play. It is marketed to parents as edutainment - developmentally nourishing for their children. But unlike most education for adults, for the children, it is just a blast of fun and something they will do every day (high repeat appeal).

The children's edutainment center will be located immediately inside the Village's entrance for convenience to local residents. It will include a 15,000 square foot building with a cafe with inside and outside points-of-service and seating; seven birthday party rooms; restrooms; a pretend village with a supermarket, house and fast food restaurant; soft modular play equipment; an older infant/toddler area; and a new event developed by the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group - Ball Works™, a two-story, highly interactive construction event. Outside will be 50,000 square feet of children's play activities including a dinosaur dig and sand play area; water tables, stream and pretend fishing pond; climbing equipment; a toddler play area; construction activities; rock and boulder climbing and a trike path.

A unique and appealing aspect of the outdoor edutainment area will be its heavily landscaped and shaded setting in the former nature trail area adjoining the lake. The area includes many large specimen banyan trees. While playing, children will be able to look out to several islands with colonies of playful spider monkeys. Since children have a strong affinity to smaller animals, other animal habitats will be located adjacent to the play areas, so children will experience both plant and animal friends.

The children's entertainment area is being designed as a fully "secured" area. It will only have one controlled entrance/exit where guardians and children will be cross-matched with arm bands. The children cannot leave without their guardians. One guardian must stay with the children at all times. Adults without children will not be permitted to enter. Older children cannot enter unless accompanied by their guardian and a younger child.

Many senior visitors to the Village without children may enjoy watching children play, but cannot enter the children's edutainment area. A separate seating area is being designed adjoining the outside play area, served by the cafe, so adults can sit and watch children play.

Since the birthday party rooms may sometimes be used by older children or children using other areas of the Village, it has its own separate check-in secured entrance.

The amusement area will be totally renovated and expanded with a new endangered safari carousel from Chance Rides, net climbing, and a 20,000 square foot world class custom themed maze by Adrian Fisher who had a recent exhibition of his work at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

The nine-hole miniature golf course in the area has always been popular with families, but has become dated. Another area in the amusement area that had become dated is the dinosaur garden. However, it has large specimen trees and is heavily shaded. The miniature golf will be relocated to that area, expanded to two nine-hole courses and themed in the prehistoric dinosaur era with the use of prehistoric-looking vegetation, tar pits and dinosaur motifs.

Future phases of expansion for the amusement area include u-drive-it jeeps and relocating the Safari Queen boat ride to a half mile canal that tours many of the animal areas in the preserve and a virgin mangrove swamp.

Florida World is scheduled for phase two of future expansion. It will include a mile long railroad historically themed after the local Jupiter and Lake Worth "Celestial" Railroad that ran in the area from 1890 to 1896, an alligator swamp, other native Florida animal species in natural habitat settings, and an elevated boardwalk through the virgin mangrove swamp.

In 1996, Lion Country Safari started a summer camp program. In 1997 the program ran over a nine week period for children 6 to 13 years old. Although attendance was low the first year, 1997 saw a significant increase. At the same time, the park started occasionally booking large corporate picnics. One picnic was for 1,000 people. Due to lack of facilities at the Village, both the summer camp program and the picnics used the KOA facilities.

As part of the expansion program, a dedicated group/picnic/education area of 4 acres is being created. The area will be able to accommodate three simultaneous picnics of up to 1,000 people in total. There will be picnic pavilions, a barbecue area with buffet style serving, recreation grounds including sand volley ball and a ball field and an education center.

Not only is the area being designed to accommodate the picnics, group events and camp programs, but it will also serve as the staging area for school field trips. Mixing school field trips, after they drive through the preserve, in with the regular guests in the Village on busy days has always been a logistics problem, often to the detriment of the regular guests' experience. The group/picnic/education area will have a dedicated bus unloading and loading area for school groups. The education center will be designed so the second part of school field trips can be conducted there, without a need to mix the school children in with regular guests in the Village.

Planning the renovation and expansion of an older facility that has grown over the years without benefit of a unifying master plan is no easy task. The challenge is to improve the layout; update the design; and address operating capacity, strategic adjacencies, thematic mix and guest friendliness issues, while preserving as much of the existing improvements as possible. Targeting a dual market with individual sub-markets increases the challenge, as each has unique needs, some of which may conflict with each other. However, by first clearly identifying the strategic mission and the target markets, there is usually a good solution through creativity and innovative design.

Lion County Safari plans to have the first phase of the Village's renovation and expansion completed by fall 1998. With its new master plan as the foundation for future growth, the park is hopeful of continued attendance, revenue and profit growth for its second 30 years.