People who grew up in Southern California fondly remember the theme parks of their youth – including Lion Country Safari. The original Lion Country park opened in Loxahatchee, Florida in 1969 near West Palm Beach. The drive-it-yourself safari park was an instant success; so much so, that additional locations across the United States were scouted by the company, and the second park opened just a year later in 1970, in the foothills that create the Irvine/Laguna Hills border in Orange County.
Lion Country Safari in Irvine thrived for many years and was welcomed by neighboring attractions such as Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Movieland Wax Museum, and the Japanese Village and Deer Park. The company itself experienced extremely aggressive growth, and other LCS parks opened around the US, including properties in Texas, Virginia, and Ohio.
Shortly after opening, Lion Country Safari purchased an old lion from a travelling Mexican circus, and in a brilliant twist of fate, a character that at one time, rivaled Mickey Mouse’s celebrity was the center of attention in Irvine – Frasier, the Sensuous Lion! Frasier was old, and was missing most of his teeth; this caused his tongue to hang out of his mouth most of the time. Yet, he was a lover not a fighter – and the company’s Vice President and PR guru, Jerry Kobrin, developed Frasier’s hot-blooded persona as a mean, lean sex machine! In part, it was truth – and even lionesses would help prop Frasier up while the big cat mated with his pride; he sired many offspring.
People came from far and wide to see Frasier, including international press. He was featured in Life magazine, and following height of his popularity, had a feature film made about him, written as a family movie by Kobrin, which was titled Frasier, the Lovable Lion. If you ever come across a copy of it, check it out – it’s really, really bad!
As the park was growing in popularity and business was booming, the first “death knell” sounded for the attraction when Frasier passed away (historical documents indicate the lion was likely euthanized by the park’s veterinarian team) in 1972. Shortly thereafter, America entered the great oil crisis of 1973 – a huge blow to an attraction that relied on guests using their own vehicles – and gasoline – to drive through it massive safari preserve. Other unfortunate events befell the park in the years to come, but those are different throwback stories for another time.
How does this all relate to Theme Park Adventure? When TPA was founded in 1994, the first major project we undertook was the documentation and planned creation of our first feature issue, which was to be named Lion Country: The Lost Safari. After months of exhaustive research and incredible collaboration with some of the company’s core staff, TPA’s Rick West became very close friends with Jerry Kobrin, the gentleman who’d at one time, stood at the helm of Lion Country alongside its CEO, Harry Shuster. After a bitter falling out, Kobrin had left the company long before its lingering demise, and remained a successful editorial writer in Orange County for various publications and newspapers. The man who created the mystique of Frasier, the Sensuous Lion and other memorable icons (including the NO TRESPASSING! VIOLATORS WILL BE EATEN! sign that sat at the edge of the property off the 405 Freeway) became a mentor of Rick’s for several years. When Jerry passed away in 1996, his family didn’t want any of his Lion Country possessions; the entire collection was offered to Rick and TPA – 12 boxes in all of rare photos, merchandise mock-ups, company memos and letterhead, legal papers, Jerry’s personal effects from his office, and even the directors chair he used on the set of Frasier, The Lovable Lion. Most of Jerry’s Lion Country items remain intact as part of Theme Park Adventure’s archives.
While everyone was excited about the prospect of Theme Park Adventure’s project, we ran into numerous roadblocks when attempting to reach out to the company’s CEO, Harry Shuster. In short (because anything else is going to be really long), Shuster is a colorful character that apparently now lives in Las Vegas; he has children, and the family is known to be fairly aggressive regarding its history and personal ventures. After much thought and many failed attempts to get Shuster to present his side of the LCS story, we ultimately decided that as long as Harry is alive – or his kids – it’s probably best not to publish our work, interviews or anything else that might be deemed “defamatory” – regardless of popular opinion or truth. We opted not to poke the bear in the case of Lion Country: The Lost Safari.
During those early days of exploration and documentation, TPA made several visits to the defunct Lion Country property, which finally closed in 1984 after years of struggling. Wild Rivers water park opened on the site of Lion Country in 1986, and took up a lot of the footprint, incorporating some of the original buildings and landscaping into its own adventure theme. Much of the property’s massive drive-through safari remained overgrown and abandoned until the property was razed and re-graded in 2010 by The Irvine Company. Today, the Los Olivos Apartment Village and other residential development exists on what was once one of Southern California’s greatest tourist attractions. Sadly, most folks that live there likely even know the land’s history. The preserve is now a master-planned community, streets and parks exist where dirt roads and exotic waterways once were, and the hillside grave where Frasier was buried has long been forgotten.
On this Throwback Thursday, Theme Park Adventure shares a few images with you from the abandoned park, circa 1994, from one of our tours of the Lion Country Safari property. While we’ll probably never publish our research in its entirety, we are grateful that we have pictures like these and memories to pass on to other fans around the world so that this once-legendary theme park will be remembered for generations to come.