Content Produced in Partnership with Visit Florida and Visit Pasco
Most people head to Africa for insane wildlife encounters, hoping to catch a sighting of the mystical “Big Five” — elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions, and leopards. Beyond the mouse ears, most of Florida’s native species are more aquatic-based with manatee, dolphins, turtles, waterfowl, and alligators the real locals. What most people don’t realize though is Florida is one of the most geographically diverse states in the nation, which creates a number of habitats and ecosystems from farmland to beachfront.
A lot of that diversity can be seen right in Pasco County, about an hour north of Tampa and Clearwater. Home to five anchor cities, it’s known as Florida’s Sports Coast for its breadth of outdoor attractions and natural pursuits. With 24-miles of shoreline and 100,000 acres of wilderness, there’s no shortage of places to bike, kayak, hike, and play. But it’s also a place to see and interact with some of the most exotic species on the planet… right in the U.S.
Welcome to Giraffe Ranch
The most intimate animal experience I’ve ever had (even moreso than touching tigers), Giraffe Ranch is a reservation only safari. It’s not a zoo or a theme park but a wild game preserve and working farm. Owned by a quirky husband and wife duo, Elena and Charles (“Lex”), she’s an artist with a studio on-site, while he has a master’s in environmental studies and has worked in zoos around the world. As the former Tampa Zookeeper, he actually took it from being one of worst in the world (so bad allegedly the chimps smoked) to one of the best. They’ve both spent extensive time in Africa fully immersing themselves in the animal kingdom and care deeply about conservation.
A true eco-adventure, the facility is 100% carbon neutral thanks to the abundance of vitamin D in the Sunshine State. They operate two properties, a grassland and a wetland in neighboring towns with about 600 exotic and domestic animals between the two. Their philosophy is if you put the right animal in the right environment, they’ll thrive and repopulate so they seek out species that are not doing well in the wild and they believe will adapt well to Florida’s climate.
And despite being called Giraffe Ranch, the first thing you’ll notice after being ushered through the gates is the diversity of animals – many species that were completely unrecognizable to me. Hailing from almost every continent, they have everything from bizarre looking rodents to big cat hybrids, and dozens of monkeys and otters chattering away. After a brief walking tour of the farm to meet some of the smaller animals – baby pigs, chickens, warthogs (Puma’s cousins), guinea pigs, and some tortoises, it was off to feed our new furry friends.
The way Giraffe Ranch works is you pick one base safari — either a 4×4, Segway tour, camel ride, or llama trek, which is how you’ll be escorted around the sprawling grounds. There are a bunch of optional extras that are unique, one-on-one encounters with specific animals to enhance the experience. You can feed the bongo, otters, and lemur, go on a mini camel ride, or get to know the rhino. We were told the Segway offered the most direct contact with the animals and was a fun way to zip around, allowing you to get extremely close to the creatures without frightening them (although a few got curiously close to me, especially considering it was mating season).
We set off on our Segway’s through a lush, well-landscaped pasture with flowy live oaks and water features set along the rolling hills. I didn’t even realize we were in the animal enclosure so you can imagine my surprise when zebra and ostrich start bounding by, encircling us. They weren’t completely oblivious to our presence but also weren’t put off by it. Checking us out but still going about their business. They have so much room to roam it truly felt like a recreation of the wild.
Giraffe Safari’s passion is undeniable and they really want you to make a deep personal connection and interact with the animals. It was incredible to hand feed the lemurs grapes (their tiny fingers grabbing them out of your palm is just the cutest), see the baby giraffe, balance on ostrich eggs (way cooler than goat yoga), meet the closest living relative to a t-rex, and pet a 4500-pound rhino who loves cuddling so much he literally fell asleep to our caresses. As an animal lover, I would’ve signed up to be their intern on the spot (and just about had to be dragged out). It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and something everyone should experience.
While You’re in the Pasco Area…
- Indulge in giant sharable charcuterie boards at the wine bar, Sip. This charming spot has a basket of reading glasses and regularly plays old movies.
- Visit the 50s style diner and boutique, Lunch on Limoges. One of the longstanding, iconic Tampa Bay restaurants, order from a chalkboard menu and save room for one of their fabulous cakes for dessert.
- Taste the creative cuisine at Craft Street Kitchen. Whether you opt for a meaty manwich or a daintier plate of salmon or faro. Their craft cocktails (including one with pop rocks) and decadent desserts are major crowd-pleasers (especially the Snickerdoodle ice cream skillet, which been dessert of the month for 12 months running).
- Play old-school arcade games and Nintendo at Pete’s Grand Central, a divey, converted garage.
- Make it tea time at Driftwood Tea Company, home to the only tea sommelier in Florida.
- Throw yourself a brewery crawl. Infusion Brewing’s jalapeño beer is a local favorite, along with Big Storm’s tropical brew and live music.
- Kayak the mangroves and bayous of Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park in search of manatees and dolphins.
- Stretch your legs. Enjoy hiking or biking the many trails at Withlacoochee Park.
- Get an aerial view of Pasco from a hot air balloon.
- Check another item off your bucket list by skydiving.
- Zip through the trees at TreeHoppers, a high ropes course and zipline.
- Give scalloping a try (seasonally in summer), which you dive for and collect with snorkels.
Looking for another unique animal encounter in Florida? Swim with the manatees in Blue Springs State Park
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