So Long, Weirdo Six Flags Drive-Through Safari
I found the news oddly crushing. Six Flags Great Adventure has announced plans to cease the “drive-through” portion of its Wild Safari. Wild Safari is the 4.5-mile zoo/wildlife preserve that for the last 38 years has offered visitors to the Jackson, NJ, park the opportunity to see animals from six continents—all from the comfort of their bucket seats.
If this is the first you’re hearing of the park, you’re probably thinking “how strange,” and of course you’d be right. (Though keep in mind that New Jersey is a state that’s had more than its fair share of strange zoo stories, including the Zanesville-esque saga of West Milford’s Jungle Habitat, and the sadder plight of the Scotch Plains Zoo née Terry Lou Zoo.) It’s odd to think that smack in the middle of central Jersey you can drive right up to zebras and rhinos and aoudads and emu, and from a safer distance see fence-enclosed lions and tigers and bears. Or rather, it’s odd if you’re not from around here and your family didn’t pile into a car to go see blue-assed baboons whiz on your windshield.
When my family took me some 30-plus years ago (not long after it had opened, I’ll bet), all anyone could talk about—or all I remember anyone talking about—was how you couldn’t take a vinyl-topped car into the safari because the monkeys would tear it off and eat it.
That last sentence requires some clarifications of a historical, zoological and gustatory nature. 1) In the 1970s, cars were produced with vinyl tops, at first to give the appearance that a fixed-roof car was a convertible, and later simply as a fashion statement. 2) Wild Safari has long since ceased to allow baboons to get close enough to autos to piss, defecate or otherwise relieve themselves on them. 3) An amazing AP story from July 1974 reports that at a preview of Wild Safari for “dignitaries,” baboons’ heretofore unknown taste for vinyl was discovered.)
My personal stance on zoos has evolved over the years. As a teen, I was strident in my believe that they were “animal jails”—of the sort in Kafka’s The Trial where the prisoners don’t know what they’ve been charged with or how long their sentence is. That’s been wavering, in part because I’ve seen how much joy the Philadelphia Zoo brings my nephew, and in part because omg how awesome is this? (I’m also told Life of Pi offers a compelling defense of zoos.) Thinking about Great Adventure’s drive-through safari, however, hits me right in that part of the brain that remembers when you were a kid and animals were pure, completely engrossing otherness. It’s a little bit sad to think that other kids might not get to experience their parents honking their car horns at exotic African sheep.
However, it’s not entirely clear what is in store for Wild Safari. The park is being, ahem, cagey, about their plans, saying only that the car and bus-tour traffic will cease after this year. According to anonymous sources in this Inquirer piece, the announcement may augur a modified business model where Wild Safari admission is in addition to general park admission (previously, visitors could pay for Wild Safari without visiting Great Adventure).
It seems that Wild Safari will continue to exist in some form or another—which is probably not awesome news to the people who live here given that this once happened. (I swear I’ve been Google Earthing this place all night looking for yaks). Another thing I’ve been doing all night is watching the stunning array of shaky-cam YouTube videos shot from inside cars driving through. No matter what becomes of Wild Safari, this may be its greatest legacy: it’s contribution to the pantheon of knuckle-headed amateur Marlin Perkinses. (And do check this amazing classic Wild Kingdom footage now.)
If you’re not going to take the opportunity to be one of the last cars to drive through between now and September 30th (but really, why wouldn’t you?), run don’t walk to YouTube and choose from the hours of Toto-backed suburban safari footage—some of which is set to music—for potty-mouthed Drexel giraffe fetishists getting frisky with their sun roof …
and cute, slightly terrified kids amazed by giraffes …
These vids could be the last surviving link to one of the area’s singular weirdo gems. Cherish them!