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Deepest, Darkest... Florida?

The lanky yet muscular lions lounge in the shade of their wooden shelter in the open grasslands, and then, suddenly, one of them gets to its feet and begins pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. What does this king of the jungle have to pace about? After all, everything seems so stress-free on the Gorongosa Reserve at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, where you'll see not only lions but also African elephants, tapirs (picture giant anteaters), wildebeests, giraffes, ostrich, zebras, antelope, chimpanzees -- about 1200 animals in all among 34 different species.

Maybe the great cat is concerned about traffic. When the 500-acre preserve opened in 1967, it was the first drive-through preserve in the United States. Today it is still one of only a handful where the animals roam free and the humans stay in their cars -- with the doors locked and windows rolled up tight, of course.

Even with a sheet of glass for protection, visitors should be prepared for hair-raisingly close encounters with these creatures. Arrive early, around 9:30 a.m., and you stand an even better chance of getting close, because the animals are more active before the afternoon heat arrives and more interested in the side of the road, where breakfast is left by their caregivers.

As you drive along the five-mile path through seven separate animal preserves -- each with a different theme, such as the Serengeti Plain, Wankie National Park, and Lake Nakaru -- the park's free audiotape is an indispensable font of information: Did you know, for example, that lions sleep an average of 18 to 20 hours a day or that elephants have no bones in their trunks?

When you tire of the driving but not of the animals, check out Safari World, the walk-through area of the park. There you can visit the Lory Aviary, where little lories and lorikeets (Australasian parrots) fly free and feed from your hand on the nectar provided by the aviary attendant. Nearby is the Animal Theater, a cool, shaded amphitheater where the education staff gives informative and entertaining presentations on chinchillas, African pygmy hedgehogs, and pythons. Over at the petting zoo, you can feed llamas, goats, sheep, and pigs from your hand -- or by tossing the food down a special chute designed for small children or bigger people who simply don't cotton to animal saliva.

A ride on the Safari Queen, a pontoon boat that seats 20, takes you around Lake Shanalee. The man-made body of water surrounds four islands inhabited by spider monkeys and apes, which are both visible and audible from the boat.

While this place is an animal preserve, it's obviously geared toward tourism. And this is South Florida, after all, so don't be surprised to find an old-fashioned carousel, a miniature golf course, and a paddleboat concession smack in the center of the park. Only here you don't even have to rent the boats; they seat four, and you can stay on as long as you'd like, paddling around a specially marked section of Lake Shanalee.

So, you see, you're going to want to plan on spending the day. Or even the weekend. Right next to the park is the Lion Country Safari KOA campground, where you can park your camper, pitch your tent, or rent an air-conditioned cabin. Sure you could drive home at day's end, but where else in Florida can you fall asleep listening to the sounds of the Serengeti? And maybe even dream about lions and elephants and antelope? Oh my.

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Dale Koppel

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