Africa U.S.A. was truly a theme park before its time, with animals allowed to roam free. Even though Animal Kingdom in Disney World was hailed as a new concept, the idea had existed some 50 years prior right here in Florida. Walt Disney was a frequent visitor to Africa U.S.A. and considered purchasing it. In fact, Africa U.S.A. was chosen over Disneyland to grace the cover of the August 1, 1960 issue of LIFE Magazine
Africa U.S.A. was Florida's Most Fabulous Tourist Attraction, and the only place of its kind in the the United States. The visitors were taken directly into the African animal kingdom where they could view roaming herds of animals face to face. Guided tours of the jungle areas were made on miniature trains over four miles of winding trails in and out of the jungle, through many herds of African animals. The trains also took visitors through the Tropical Gardens area of Africa U.S.A., where they could view acres and acres of blooming plants from all tropical and sub-tropical sections of the world. Over 55,000 rare and exotic plants and miles of winding streams where electric boats took visitors on a tour of the flower bedecked canals and lakes.
A Growing Boca Raton and Africa U.S.A.
As the 1950's continued. Africa U.S.A. became more and more popular as a tourist attraction with 300,000 visitors a year. John Pedersen had succeeded, perhaps too well, on putting Boca Raton on the map. Housing developments such as Boca Isles began to spring up around the Africa U.S.A. property. Many residents complained about the noise and traffic that Africa U.S.A. contributed to. A legal battle over the path that Camino Real would take ensued as the City of Boca Raton tried to condemn land. John Pedersen argued that the crooked path that Camino Real would take was dangerous but he was overruled by the city council. At about the same time the legal "victories" against the Department of Agriculture were to take their toll. Even though no animals had been directly imported from Africa for years, African red ticks were supposedly found on some animals. The Department insisted on spraying and several animals fell over dead where they stood. This and the Camino Real situation made John Pedersen realize that his welcome in Boca Raton was over. He sold the Africa U.S.A. attraction and a corporation ran it for two years. After they failed to make payments, John took the property back and ran it during its final year of operation. Several developers were anxious to buy the land.
The Closing of Africa U.S.A.
Africa U.S.A. was sold and closed its doors on September 4, 1961. The animals were sold at auction to zoos around the country. John Pedersen was 65 at the time and tired of fighting city hall. The Africa U.S.A. era had come to an end. The Pedersens retired to Lake Worth until 1971 when they moved to Australia. They returned to Lake Worth in 1974 to be near family. Lillian Pedersen died in 1985 but John Pedersen reached the age of 98. Never to be outdone, his last moment of glory occurred in January 1996 when he appeared on the front page of his hometown newspaper back in Racine. He had written to the paper with a mini-biography of himself. When his fantastic tales of a "one-cent" housing sale and running an African wildlife park turned out to be true, John Pedersen had his last bit of fame.
Some of the features of this amazing park:
Who was "Jungle Bettie"? Jungle Bettie was Bettie Page, the most popular pin-up girl of the 1950's, who passed away December 11, 2008
Her most famous camera shoot occurred at Africa U.S.A. with famous photographer Bunny Yeager. From this session the "jungle" photos became famous worldwide. There are many web sites dedicated to Bettie Page (www.bettiepage.com).
Africa USA had it's own theme song. The song "Skokiaan" was a very popular hit in 1954, with 3 versions hitting the top 40 chart's. The version heard in the web page is by the Four Lads and hit #7 on the top 40 chart. The original song was from a South Africa soft drink commercial. The song was played and sold in the gift shop as you entered the park.
The Watusi geyser went off regularly every 35 minutes but could be turned on at any time. The geyser was named for the Watusi people of central Africa who are often over 7 feet tall. The geyser reached heights of its own, often sending water 160 feet in the air, outdoing Old Faithful herself by 10 feet.
The Africa U.S.A. entrance was located on one of the few natural ridges in Palm Beach County. A base of cement was used to build a foundation for where naturally occurring coral was placed to create the waterfalls. In order to make the setting more natural, huge pumps were placed underground to bring the needed water up from the Floridan Aquifer, a river that flows underground through South Florida. Even though several engineers said it could not be done, Jack Pedersen designed the pump system that ran both the waterfalls and the geyser. The name "Zambezi" comes from the 1,650 mile long Zambezi River located in south central Africa which feeds the world-famous Victoria Falls. The water was not re-circulated but pumped fresh and cold from the aquifer. Over 250,000 gallons per hours rushed over the 30 foot drop into Lake Nanyuki.
Africa U.S.A. Celebrities:
Many animals were very popular at Africa U.S.A. The cheetahs Mojah and Mbili, the giraffes Moneybags and Champ but above all Princess Margaret. Margaret was a baby chimp adopted by the Pedersen family and raised in their home like a child. The baby chimp was trained by John Pedersen, who had a natural gift in training animals. Margaret was most famous for kissing people. John trained her to do this by first having her kiss picture in magazines. She learned her cue - "Kiss the pretty lady" and Margaret would kiss the women first. She entertained countless people with her personality and charm and that great smile. She loved to wear frilly dresses and especially enjoyed riding her bicycle around Africa U.S.A. and on shopping excursions to buy new clothes. She appeared many times on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. During the day she had her own Cape Cod style "house" in the main entrance building where arriving guests could watch her at play. At night she went home with the Pedersens, occasionally swinging from the crystal chandelier!
Mojah and Mbili were acquired while Jack Pedersen was on safari in Africa. Mojah and Mbili means "one and two" in Swahili. They had just completed the documentarys "Below the Sahara" and "Where No Vultures Fly". They were as tame as house cats and accompanied Jack Pedersen throughout South Florida riding in his convertible. A Hollywood producer spotted the pair and they were featured in the Academy Award winning film "Quo Vadis" as Emperor Nero's wifes' personal pets.
Moneybags" - The Troublesome Giraffe
In the 1950's, it was difficult to import giraffes directly into the United States due to strict regulations from the Department of Agriculture. The Department also refused to let Africa U.S.A. import giraffes because they were a "private" zoo. A giraffe was purchased by Africa U.S.A. from Kenya but the Department of Agriculture refused to release him to Africa U.S.A. So off to court they went. Jack Pedersen flew to Washington D.C. and assisted Africa U.S.A. attorney Ernest Tucker in arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals. The court held that Africa U.S.A. had just as much right to have a giraffe as any public zoo. The poor giraffe was quarantined 18 months in New Jersey. The court battle cost over $17,000 in legal fees so the giraffe was named "Moneybags". The Department of Agriculture still was not through. They billed Africa U.S.A. $2,100 for the giraffe's food. Back to court they went and again Africa U.S.A. won. These victories against the Department of Agriculture would prove costly later on.
**Information gathered from old timers of the area and from the AWESOME Africa U.S.A web site. (visit link
**PLEASE DO VISIT THE WEB SITE TO SEE SEVERAL VIDEO'S OF THIS AMAZING PARK AS IT WAS AS WELL AS A MAP OF THE ORIGINAL PARK AND INFORMATION GALORE!**