August 28, 2008

Lion Country Safari: Irvine, California

Lion Country Safari existed in Irvine, California until 1984. Lion Country was founded and headed up by South African CEO Harry Shuster of United Leisure in 1968 and the first park opened in Florida in 1969. The second park in California opened in June 1970. In 1982, two years prior to closing the park, United Leisure opened a summer day camp, Camp Frasier to hopefully help offset the effects of low attendance. Meanwhile there was still no budget for maintaining the park and its deteriorating attractions meant the park's future was doomed. In 1984 with dwindled attendance and decrepit conditions the park closed. In 1982, During the final years of the park, a long bitter battle began between Shuster and the Irvine Company where the Irvine Company decided to renegotiate the 28 year lease on the land (which began in 1968) and try to take back control as nearby property values increased and the park was proving to be a financial liability.

Harry Shuster then became involved in a bitter and excruciating legal battle until 1997 when they finally reached a settlement. During the ongoing legal battle Shuster threatened to 'tear it all down' -- including Irvine Meadows (built on a sublease agreement with U.L., now
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater), Wild Rivers, and the day camp. His reasoning was, "I built all this on a firm 28 year lease agreement, why should the Irvine Company be allowed to take it from me just because they want it back?". A portion of the park's entertainment area was converted into the current water park Wild Rivers in 1986-87. The remaining portion of the park was left as Camp Frasier which continued until the early 1990s when it became Camp James. During the years of Camp Frasier the drive through reserve was used for horseback riding, archery, ATC, ATV riding and hiking. Lion Country was originally in the city limits of Laguna Hills.

Attendance went down, and negative incidents occurred at the Safari Park. An escaped elephant killed a motorist on the 405 freeway and had to be euthanize. When a hippo named Bubbles was loose for 19 days, the hippo was shot with a tranquilizer, rolled into the water of a reservoir behind the park's rolling hills and drowned. A necropsy revealed Bubbles was pregnant. Also, several lions had killed the hoofed animals and had to be quarantined from the rest of the animals in a fenced section of the park. Monkeys reportedly ripped the rubber bumper stripping off car doors and jumped on hoods. Insurance claims skyrocketed. As of May 2008, the Irvine Company still has not done anything with the land except re-grade what was once the Drive-Through Preserve and designate portions for nurseries to store plants and large specimen trees.

Share your stories, memories and thoughts of Lion Country Safari in the comment section below.  

Google Earth Images





Then and Now

For 27 years, the old Lion Country Safari land was home to Camp Frasier/Camp James. In 2012, in order to make way for new apartments, the lease wasn't extended.    Read the article here.

Wild Rivers
One of the original metal Zambezi Boats from 1970 was saved and affixed in the concrete paving as a souvenir in the Wild Rivers outdoor eating and recreation areas between the wave pools and the locker rooms.

Wild Rivers gets one more year, August 2, 2007

2011: Wild River's lease was not extended:  Wild Rivers' final season: No new site lined 

2012 update: According to the Wild Rivers website, a new location was found within the OC.    

updated September, 2012


  1. Lion Country Safari can be seen on the TV show "More Things That Aren't Here Anymore."

    "A follow-up to the 1997 special recalls bygone Southland landmarks. Included: Hollywood's Brown Derby; Gilmore Stadium, a minor-league field; the steamships of Catalina Island; the original McDonald's restaurant. Host: Ralph Story."

    This program can be found on KCET.

  2. The Irvine Company recently tore down Wild Rivers and are building a residential community on the site. The road going into the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater off of Irvine Center Dr. is still named Lion Country Safari road.

  3. I forgot this part. The Irvine Company also extended Lake Forest Blvd. over some hills that are adjacent to the old Wild Rivers site. From the road you can easily see the entire area.

  4. A twin engine Beach King Air also plowed into the Amphitheater during the 90s (?) on a final to El Toro.

  5. I have a picture of me sitting on a lion. Not sure of the exact year, but early 70s. We loved that place as kids!!

  6. I remember going to Lion Country Safari when I was a little girl. The ostrich tried to get the door lock on the inside of our vehicle. The other thing I remember is they had a machine that would make you a wax animal right there. It was so cool. Sad to see that it is no longer there. This was in the late 70's. Memories :-)

  7. Wow so sad to have closed it down.We were there back in the 70's it was such a neat place to see.I have alot of pictures i took good thing i did.Im so sorry for the animals that were destroyed.Too bad they couldnt of did something to keep it open.Id really like to go through it again.):

  8. I used to work at Lion Country Safari. Some of the detail left out is- The elephant that escape belong to Gentle Jungle. Who rented space from Lion Country Safari. There was accident involving the tiger from the show. Again the animal belong to Gentle Jungle. I was on duty that day. Here what happen. The show started (please remember this is Gentle Jungle equipment and animals). One Child was running all over the place, his father was to busying to control his child, it is ask parents please control your child at the beginning of each show. The tiger was having a bad day the trainer got him out of the ring somehow the tiger got out the cages and fences. The tiger attack a little boy. Where was his dad? To busy running leaving his child behind but did not forget his beer. I was one on the first one there. I will never forget this. Who gets sued? Lion Country Safari. Why? Lion Country Safari had money! Gentle Jungle didn't. I love working there. I have such great memories of Lion Country Safari

    1. So glad to see your post. I am Dr. Dooley's daughter. I loved going to work with him back then. People are sue-happy and forget that animals are animals and to take care. I hate hearing the backlash. Lion Country was an amazing place!

  9. use to do the elephant show. One of the elephants is at LA Zoo. Many of the lions went to Shambala which at the time was owned by Teppi Heddren. Great place, good animals and lots of poor management from unknowing and uncaring executives.

  10. I'm always grateful to hear these experiences from others, especially those of you who worked there. I remember the wax lion machine at the entry. I still have a souvenir from the gift shop of a plastic lion in a wooden cage with the LCS sticker on the bottom. I never could understand why this place dwindled on attendance but hearing from some of you, now I know why. They didn't seem to invest much back into the place. So sorry about the animals and the lawsuits. ...and the idiot people. It's hard for me to hear that Michael Crighton based Jurassic Park on the San Diego Zoo or Wild Animal Park when it was obviously much closer to Lion Country Safari.

  11. went there in 1972? when Dad&Mom came out to see me.I was in the Navy.

  12. I took my kids to Wild Rivers in the early 90s. Many great memories. When I visited CA in 1979, we drove through Lion Country Safari and had a great time. In October 1994, the lions were long gone when my fiance and I held our wedding there. We married near the water's edge and had our reception in the circular building nearby that had floor to ceiling windows - as I remember it. It was a beautiful place and I'm sorry that it is no longer around!

  13. I lived in southern California for 11 years from 1980 to 1991. We went to many concerts a at the amphitheater. The last time we went to see Journey we snuck in via lion country safari! I remember going over the fence in a fairly inconspicuous spot and running down a hill to the walkway leading from parking to the amphitheater. Once down the hill we blended in with others walking to the show.

  14. We took our three children there every year for many years we have such great memories great movies we watch them now with our grandchildren our grandchildren wish they could have seen the animals up close and see them as they should be saying you're free It was a great time we always look forward every year to go with my children got to Pat baby lions and they never will forget that so sad that it was not taken care of like it should've been it would be great for the children of today so so sad

  15. I went to the summer camp. My grandmother ran the ropes challenge course there in the 90's. I loved exploring the park and old attractions.