As we depart Safari Base One on a recent summer morning in our rugged open-air, canvas-topped truck, I'm reminded of "Jurassic Park." Much like the main characters in the 1993 blockbuster film, we pass through an imposing arched gateway that grandly announces our arrival at the newly revamped Safari Off Road Adventure at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, N.J.
But unlike the fictional Jurassic-era theme park, there are no dinosaurs chasing down our vehicle, trying to eat us. And the only screams we hear are the bloodcurdling ones emanating from the nearby looming Kingda Ka, which, as the world's tallest roller coaster, launches its riders 45 stories high and back at 128 mph in less than a minute.
Six Flags Great Adventure has offered a safari -- complete with elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, zebras (and lions, tigers and bears, oh my) -- since 1974. Until recently, you drove your own car through the 350-acre wildlife preserve, windows rolled up tightly to discourage safari inhabitants from becoming too friendly. (As it is, I still can recall several pesky monkeys making themselves at home on the hood of our Ford Explorer during a visit a decade ago.)
Last August, Great Adventure temporarily closed its wild safari for a makeover, and reopened in May.
"We wanted it to be an interactive experience," says the park's communications manager, Kristin Siebeneicher. "That's something you just couldn't get being in your own car."
Animals from six continents
On board the hardy safari vehicle, which seats about 35 people, we bump along a dirt path (and through the occasional watering hole) as Cody, our safari guide for the first part of the trek, keeps us educated and entertained with animal fun facts.
"Antlers are different from horns," he says, as we pass a Roosevelt elk sporting impressive antlers and cooling himself in the water. "Horns are part of the skull. Antlers are not. They fall off and grow back every season."
The safari excursion lasts about 45 minutes (not including a stop at Camp Aventura, mentioned below) and is included in the park entrance fee of $64.99. (There are discounted fares on the park's website.) It is broken into 10 sections, with 1,200 animals representing about 80 species from six continents -- Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe and North and South America.
"The last time I was here was when I was a child and my father brought me. It's much different now," says Kimberly Torres, of Riverhead. "When I last came to the safari, you were able to drive through in your car. Doing it this way, you get to see a lot more. You get to be closer to the animals."
There are Bengal tigers and black bears. Ankole cattle (African cows) and white-tailed gnu (also known as black wildebeest ... go figure). Red kangaroos, shaggy bison and Asian water buffalo. And, of course, giraffes, zebras and elephants with ears shaped like the continent of Africa (another one of guide Cody's informational tidbits).
"Around 5:30 p.m. in the evening, all of the herds walk by," says small-animal supervisor Jacqueline Deschenes. "It's absolutely breathtaking."
Baby zebras, bear cubs
Many of the animals have been here (or were born here) since the original safari; thus, they have had time to adapt to Jersey winters. We spy lots of babies along the way: a nursing zebra youngster swishing its tail, a gangly baby eland (African antelope), 2-year-old brown bear cubs named Spot and Scarlett and an unattended ostrich nest with 12 large eggs.
It's hot on this particular morning, the high reaching 91 degrees, which, with the humidity, feels like 97. Most of the beasts prefer a shady siesta or a dip in the pond over making the effort to greet their human visitors. And, while the giraffes do not approach our vehicle (as invitingly depicted in the publicity photo), they do stare at us curiously with wide eyes under enviably long lashes as we pass close by.
We stop midway at Camp Aventura, home to some of the smaller animals, including Eugene, a 22-year-old brilliant blue and gold macaw and an umbrella cockatoo (aka white cockatoo) named Maui, who, like Eugene, is 22 years old and is native to South America (not Hawaii). There are, among other creatures, a two-toed sloth named Chewbacca and a green iguana named Godzilla.
"Want to wave goodbye?" Maui's minder asks, as the white-feathered bird lifts up one claw obligingly and wiggles it.
At Camp Aventura, you also can pay an extra $5 fee to feed carrots, sweet potatoes and browse (a fancy word for leaves and tender shoots of vegetation) to the safari's African reticulated giraffes -- Conan, Georgia and Mariah, to name a few -- with feeding times at 12:30, 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. The giraffes eagerly stretch their necks across a wooden platform elevated to about the height of ... well, their mouths.
Their tongues "felt like sand," says 7-year-old Benaiah Schreck of Old Bridge, N.J.
Not the Discovery Channel
We hop another truck for the back half of the trip, passing through various checkpoints with names such as Kingsland, Terra Ursus and Tigris Asiana. Here reside the Bengal and Siberian tigers, African lions and North American brown bears in either caged enclosures or behind electrified wire fencing because, after all, they are still unpredictable predators and this is a family-oriented theme park, not the Discovery Channel.
As we near the end of our journey, Morgan, our new guide, notes the resemblance of several emus in Didgeridoo Pass to the prehistoric predator velociraptor (unwittingly bringing us back to the whole "Jurassic Park" thing).
The movement of emus "was studied for the velociraptor animation used in 'Jurassic Park,'" Morgan says.
Short, informative video clips are played aboard the truck at certain points during the tour -- hard to hear, at times, over the rumble of the vehicle's powerful engine and even harder to see in the glare of the sun.
But our guides are lively, even if some of the animals are not on this day. (It's just too darned hot.) It's worth taking a break from riding roller coasters to see these interesting creatures, many of them roaming free, as you head out into the African Serengeti or the Australian Outback. (Not really, but you feel like you're there. And, hey, it's a lot less expensive than flying halfway around the world.)
Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari
WHERE 1 Six Flags Blvd., Jackson, N.J.
INFO 732-928-1821, sixflags.com/greatadventure
SUMMER HOURS Daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
ADMISSION Safari included in the ticket price: $64.99 adults, $37.99 children less than 54 inches, free for ages 2 and younger; $44.99 online purchase, $39.99 three-day online advance purchase.