When it comes to zoos, there are two camps. People either loathe the idea of keeping wild animals in cages, or they are resigned to the reality that without an opportunity to get up close and personal to species besides our own, people would truly care a lot less about the fate of these creatures. I'm in the second camp myself, and I care deeply about the conditions under which such animals are kept. That's why you'll never see a certain local aquarium on this site. It was with caution that I approached a family day of adventure at Safari Niagara.
I did my research first. Several Google searches later, and I couldn't find any dirt about Safari Niagara, and in fact, I found this encouraging article where managing director Tim Tykollis responds to the outrage surrounding animal treatment at Marineland. To me, it seemed like Safari Niagara was very invested in the welfare of their animals, and the staff who care for them every day. It was nice to see them take steps beyond the basic necessities.
In 2013 Safari Niagara became an accredited member of the Zoological Association of America, in addition to their existing Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquarium accreditation (CAZA-AZAC). You can read more about their credentials here.
We chose Father's Day to explore Safari Niagara as a family, and on that particular day dads got in for free. Here are notes from our trip:
The Park Was Packed, But We Barely Knew
I learned later that Safari Niagara had record attendance on that day, but the amazing thing was that this park is so huge, the crowds were barely noticeable. We were able to enjoy everything without feeling crowded, and there were hardly even line ups for the rides or amusements. I was deeply impressed, that is, until lunch.
Consider Bringing a Picnic
We didn't, and it became our only regret that day. The line up for the food concession stand was AN HOUR LONG. Just to order food! Then we had to wait for it to be ready. With a diabetic grandpa and an over-tired toddler, you can imagine the exquisite hell we experienced. There was another stand offering wraps, but most of our posse wanted more traditional fast food. We bit the bullet and waited, trying to make the most of it as we lost two hours of our day to the lunch experience. Ugh. At least, when the food finally arrived, it was DELICIOUS. Really great quality, and good prices. The park was quick to respond to my complaint, and explained that they were shocked by the attendance numbers that day, plus two staff members had called in sick. They also informed us that they would be opening additional food concessions this season. All great to know, and I was happy with the customer service. If you want to save some dough, and get lunch over with more quickly, bring your own. There are plenty of beautiful picnic spots and benches on the grounds, and you can even rent a wagon at the park entrance.
Bring Swim Gear
Safari Niagara has an awesome splash pad and wading pool that really saved our bacon during the epic lunch fiasco. Our kids were so cranky, we sent them in with their street clothes. I didn't realize the splash pad was open, so we came unprepared. It's great for toddlers and slightly older little ones, and my 10 year old loved playing babysitter as the younger kids were distracted. This cool down will be necessary if you visit the park on a hot day.
Hats, Water and Sunscreen Required
There are lots of shady spots throughout the park, but there are also long stretches where visitors are in full sun. It was a hot day when we went, so we were glad for hydration and sun protection. If you're really beat in the heat, there's a lovely train that runs through the entire park making various stops along the way.
Bug Repellent Wouldn't Hurt Either
It's a fact: moist, wooded areas filled with wildlife attract bugs. Namely huge mosquitos. Most of the animals are in said shaded areas, so you may want to protect yourself from bug bites.
Plan to Spend the Day
We couldn't get to everything at the park, and we were there from about 10:30 am until 3:30 pm. There are so many fun activities including: a multi-level ropes course for climbing of all levels (totally safe - everyone gets harnessed), a bungee swing, some amusement rides, a giant sandbox filled with toys and huge playground with a wide variety of equipment for kids of all ages, paddle boats, mini farm, catch-and-release fishing, and several shows and guided tours featuring various species of animals. We've promised the kids another trip or two before the summer is over. Us grown ups have our eye on the concert series at the park's amphitheater, particularly the upcoming Pink Floyd tribute night when the Niagara Symphony Orchestra teams up with New York-based band The Machine to play The Wall in it's entirety under the stars. Date night, anyone?
Safari Niagara was a huge hit with the kids, who had a truly perfect day of fun once their bellies were full again. I noticed only a couple of things about the animals and their habitats, but when I expressed my concerns in an email, they were addressed promptly and thoroughly by management. I'll be curious to see if any of the improvements were made by the time we return to the park later this summer, otherwise the habitats were meticulously clean, decently sized, and the animals appeared to be in good health.
Our kids had the opportunity to feed giraffes, listen to screeching howler monkeys, take photos of sleepy lions and learn about the effect that disappearing habitat has on our local wolf population. They really took away a sense of responsibility towards other living creatures, and I remember the same feeling of awe and wonder and protectiveness that zoos would evoke in me as a child. Animals should be free, but we haven't done a very good job of taking care of them in their own habitats either, have we? I still have mixed feelings about whether keeping animals in captivity is right, but I can say that I felt that the animals at Safari Niagara seemed well cared for.
I only wish there were more volunteers and staff available to answer questions and share information about the animals on site. Perhaps as the season goes on, staffing will pick up.
Safari Niagara offers a kid's summer day camp through July, plus they host birthday parties and encourage celebrations of all sorts. The park is open May through early October, except on August 13th when they are closed for a private event.
We're hosting friends and family in July and August, and we've added Safari Niagara to our must-do list with our visitors. If you're on my side of the ethical argument over zoos, you should definitely check this one out. Visit the Safari Niagara website here.