Africa USA boasted a 260-foot geyser. The theme park closed in 1961
and the area now is home to Boca Raton's Camino Gardens neighborhood. Images provided
By Liz Best
When you think of Boca Raton, images of beautiful beaches, high-end restaurants and trendy shops may come to mind, but lions and tigers and bears?
OK, so there weren’t lions, tigers or bears at Africa USA when it opened its gates west of Boca Raton in 1953, in what is now the Camino Gardens subdivision, but the 300-acre property was home to some 200 exotic species. Monkeys, gazelles, giraffes and zebras featured in what is considered to be one of the first wild animal attractions in the world.
The park closed 50 years ago, on Labor Day 1961, following a series of zoning disputes with the city and the county.
Africa USA was the brainchild of John “Pete” Pedersen, a visionary with only a sixth-grade education, who had a hankering to open a park where animals weren’t in cages but in their natural surroundings. Keep in mind, this was the pre-Disney era and, in fact, Walt Disney was a frequent visitor to the park.
Pedersen’s daughter, Shirley Schneider of Boynton Beach, says her dad was determined to be a millionaire and wanted to live to be at least 100. He became a millionaire when he sold the park for $1.1 million in October 1961. He also came darn close to his second goal when he died in 1996 at the age of 99.
After purchasing the land for $25 an acre, Pedersen imported animals from Africa to populate his little piece of heaven. Admission was free and for 95 cents, visitors could tour the park by tram on the Jungle Train Tour.
Ginger Pedersen, a dean at Palm Beach State College, wasn’t born until 1963, two years after Africa USA closed, but she remembers well the spunky spirit her grandfather carried throughout his life.
“He did a lot of out-of-the-box thinking,” she said. “He never stopped thinking and he was an extremely positive person. I think that’s one of the reasons he lived as long as he did. I don’t think he really thought he would die.”
During its heyday, the park featured a man-made lagoon, waterfall and 260-foot geyser (Pedersen wanted his own version of Old Faithful). Today, the only remnant of the park is the geyser base.
Lynn Kalber of West Palm Beach moved to the nearby Boca Square subdivision in 1967. The park was closed, but it still managed to keep the neighborhood kids entertained.
“There was a little island still there with a small, gated and locked bridge to the island and that’s where the monkeys lived,” she said. “Also left were large groups of peacocks that roamed the Camino Real area, and they came over into our neighborhood, too. … As kids, we thought it was very cool to have monkeys and peacocks living so close by. Our own private zoo, of a kind.”
Pedersen’s daughter, Schneider, remembers a story her father told about his first circus, which seems to have sparked his interest in the business of entertaining the masses.
Around the turn of the century, the circus rolled into his hometown of Racine, Wis. Penniless, he was determined to get inside the big tent.
“He was only 5 or 6, but he wanted to see the circus,” she said. “He went all around (the circus grounds) saying, ‘Would you please give me a job so I can see the circus?’ He just met with dead ends.”
This ticket for the Jungle Train Tour shows the train chugging through Africa USA. It cost 95 cents.
That is, until, a man named Red sat the young Pedersen down and told him not to move. Pretty soon the tent was full of spectators and a cowboy on a beautiful white horse entered and stopped right in front of Pedersen.
“The horse bowed to him and then the cowboy bowed. Then he removed his hat to reveal Red,” said Schneider.
She says her grandfather got a spanking when he got home but didn’t care because it was the happiest day of his life.
Africa USA may be a distant memory 50 years after its closing, but Pedersen’s descendants are doing their best to keep the legacy alive.
Ginger Pedersen maintains a website (www.africa-usa.com) and updates it often with historical information, old photos and anything else she can find that pertains to the old theme park. After all, she may have been born after the park closed, but she feels like she grew up there nonetheless.
“Oh, I heard all the stories.”