Wildlife Safari Park

BUSY: There’s been a lot more than bison on the roads of Wildlife Safari Park since the facility opened March 27. With the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools and severely limiting entertainment options, the drive-through park has seen a huge surge in attendance, according to park officials.

ASHLAND – While COVID-19 may have forced some places to remain closed, the Wildlife Safari is open to the public and has seen some record numbers so far in the new and young park season.

The Lee G. Simmons Wildlife Safari Park near Ashland is open and has seen great results in their attendance. With things starting to warm up in this spring season, the park is a great activity to get out of the house for a while to see some animals, while also practicing social distancing. 

“All of us at the Zoo and Wildlife Safari Park are thrilled to provide an opportunity for people to ‘escape’ into nature, while still abiding by the recommendations of health and government officials in Nebraska to limit gatherings to less than 10 people,” said Gary Pettit, superintendent of the Wildlife Safari Park. “We are grateful for the support of our members and the communities in which we all work and live and hope they will take this opportunity to visit the animals.”

While places like the visitor center, hiking trails, the Hands-On Corral, Eagle Aviary, Bison Overlook, Nature Play Area and Wolf Canyon are closed off until at least April 30, guests are still able to drive around the park and potentially see animals such as buffalo, elk, pelicans, bald eagles, deer and more from the comfort of their own vehicles. 

  “With the park being designed to be a drive through place, it’s really worked out well to be open while also keeping everyone safe,” Vice President of Animal Management Dan Cassidy said. “We’ve added things to the park over the years since, but for now we’re restricting people to their cars only with the exception of our two restroom facilities in the park.”

  Despite limiting the park to just a drive through experience, visitors have still come in at impressive rates. While weekends understandingly tend to be more crowded than weekdays, on a couple occasions already, the park has seen as many as over 300 guests in a day. 

“As of now, our year to this date attendance has been 72,804 people in the first couple weeks of being open,” Cassidy said. “Last year was one of our biggest seasons ever and that ended up with 150,000 people. So, we were very excited about that, and now we’re already about halfway there in just two weeks which is also very exciting.”

Seeing such turnouts has been a great sight to see for the park staff and management. Though Cassidy said they were advertising on social media that they would open the park as scheduled, they were still surprised by how strong attendance numbers have been thus far. 

“As we got closer to the opening date people’s interest in us on social media led us to believe that things would be busy. We geared up and got some extra help and on the first Friday of us being open, we had about 7,000 visitors, Saturday was rainy so we were just a bit under 6,000 that day, but that first Sunday was nice and warm and we had about 8,000 visitors. Usually a big Saturday or Sunday for us, we’re happy if we get 2,000 and I think we broke 3,000 only a couple times prior to this,” he said.

We don’t engage the visitors too much of course, but with the few that have talked to us people have just been very thankful, kids have been waving at you and people just saying thanks for doing this. We’ve been apologetic for some of the lines that we’ve had, most of the moms have been saying that they probably would be stuck at home otherwise. It’s been really nice and kind of overwhelmingly positive comments from the public to us. I think we all expected our turnout to start out well, but speaking for myself all of this has really surprised me,” he added.  

After taking a drive and seeing the animals, park visitors can also help themselves to dinner from Round the Bend Steakhouse which is also open for business and is less than a couple miles from the park.

“Right as you’re getting ready to leave the park you can call ahead and order a burger or whatever,” Cassidy said. “They have drive-up delivery or take-out and it would also be a great place to eat after a day with the animals.” 

For those that still prefer to stay home during this pandemic, the Wildlife Safari Park and the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, which operates Wildlife Safari Park, have activities for the family online as well. 

“We’re also doing some virtual animal tours and virtual field trips through the education department,” Cassidy said. “We are thinking of putting go-pro cameras on some of the keepers and basically let the zookeepers do what they do during the day. It might be things like giving the rhino a bath, and basically show people what it’s like to be a zookeeper. We are working on getting stuff like that online soon.”

Online activities can be seen on the Omaha Zoo and Wildlife Safari social media pages, or on Omahazoo.com and on the “Zoo From Home” page.     

  Admission prices to the Wildlife Safari park are $6 for anyone 12 years and up, $5 for seniors, and $4 for those who are under 12 years of age. Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium members are given free admission through April 30.

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