Africa USA – America’s First Drive-Thru Animal Theme Park

I would be doing a disservice to my family if my first article was on something different than Africa USA. This will be the first in a series of articles about Africa USA, and is a general overview of the attraction.

Imagine its 1951, here in Palm Beach County. There were only about 115, 000 people in the county, and Boca Raton was in a bit of post-war funk. Boca Raton had been the site of a huge army air core training base(where Florida Atlantic University now stands). The city and county owned quite a bit of land that was taken back from the Mizner Corporation after the housing bust right before the Great Depression. Into this picture steps an entrepeneurial man of 100% Danish heritage – John Peder Pedersen. He purchased over 300 acres of land from the city of Boca Raton and from Palm Beach

Africa USA Sign

Sign at the entrance to Africa USA

County for about $25 an acre.

So what to do with all that land? As my grandparents were avid gardeners, they first thought to open a botanical garden…but what could make it more exciting? My father, Jack Pedersen, noticed how the land with its grasslands and trees really looked a bit like Africa…so why not create something that had never been done before, create a zoo with no cages? My dad set off for Africa to purchase animals. And people laughed at him. You want to buy HOW many zebra? It took him about two months before anyone would even take him seriously. He did manage to buy many animals and leased a ship called the “African Planet” to ferry the animals from Mombassa to Port Everglades. They also purchased animals from other zoos around the country.

Africa USA opened in March 1953 to great fanfare as Palm Beach county’s largest attraction. There were zebra, ostrich, gazelle, giraffe, gnu, sitatunga and many other African Savannah animals. Visitors could ride an open-air tram through the Tanganika Territory, or take a boat ride past Monkey Island, the Watusi Geyser and Zambezi Falls.

Through many events that future articles will explore, the park closed in September 1961 and became the Camino Gardens subdivision and several shopping centers and professional plazas. The only visible relic from the original park is the geyser base, visible at low tide as a large cement mound in the lagoon. A plaque commemorates Africa USA in the park at the entrance to Camino Gardens.

Plaue for Africa USA

Africa USA Plaque

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