Looking for a nice day out? If you’re an animal lover, you’ll probably spend quite some time on wildlife documentaries or looking at coffee table books. Why not try one of the UK’s many incredible drive through zoos? One thing’s for sure: Seeing a pride of lions walking by just a few inches away from your car is an entirely different experience than watching them from the safety of your comfortable TV chair!
In this special,we’ll take a closer look at the UK’s best drive through zoos. All of them offer the same basic program of wild animals in a simulated natural habitat. Yet each one has its distinct profile. On top of the safaris, each one also offers plenty of additional entertainment options.
So whichever of these safari parks you choose, you can be sure you’ll get a full day’s worth of fun, excitement and even a bit of education.
Table of Contents
- A little history of drive through zoos
- The responsibility of drive through zoos
- A threat to animals
- Are safari parks killing animals?
- The UK’s best drive through zoos: Similar concepts
- Longleat Safari Park
- West Midlands Safari Park: International Connection
- Port Lympne Reserve
- Woburn Safari Park
- Knowsley Safari Park
- Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park
- Knepp Wildland Safari
First, a little history, however
The history of the UK’s drive through zoos begins in Wiltshire. Shortly after the conclusion of the second World War, Henry Thynne, the sixth Marquess of Bath, had opened his monumental mansion to the public. It had been an instant success, luring many thousands of visitors to the Longleat House and its beautiful estate.
To Thynne, turning his house into a public spectacle was motivated by the need for a financial boost. But he sensed there was opportunity for more. It’s not quite sure how he came upon the idea of turning it into a safari park and bringing wild lions to England. But one thing’s for sure: he hit a nerve.
By 1966, Lord Bath had realised his vision. Longleat opened its doors to a veritable media frenzy. So remarkable was the concept that parliament requested a debate on the topic, which discussed the merits and safety of the park. Initial reactions were not exclusively positive to say the least: This, as one commentator wrote, is the “most unsuitable use for a stretch of England’s green and pleasant land that can ever have entered the head of a noble proprietor.”
The public couldn’t agree less.
In fact, turning Longleat into a safari park would turn out to be one of the most successful uses of a stretch of England’s green and pleasant land that ever entered the head of a noble proprietor. Lord Bath personally took it upon himself to welcome as many visitors as he could, selling tickets and overseeing the opening.
Already the first day was a huge success. Thousands came and the queues, as The Telegraph wrote in a historical article, “stretched back four miles and people waited six hours to see the lions”. A total of almost half a million curious animal friends visited the park in 1966 alone.
Since then, Longleat has not only expanded its leading role at home, but turned into an international tourist attraction. According to estimates, current visitor numbers are well over a million per year.
Quickly, other drive through zoos began mushrooming across the country. Few would replicate the visitor numbers of Longleat. Still, many of them have become roaring success stories as well – pun fully intended.
With great success comes great responsibility
The parliament debate about Longleat would not remain the only discussion of its kind. Ever since their introduction, safari parks have been controversial. Critics have mainly based their arguments on two points.
For one, they consider these parks to be unsafe. And it is true that accidents have plagued drive through zoos from the beginning. Although not a massive issue, the animals will occasionally damage cars. As one visitor remembers:
“One chewed through my aerial and another decided to bounce up and down clinging onto my rear window wiper and snapped it off. They also tend to sit on the wing mirrors so hopefully your wing mirrors can take the weight of a monkey.”
These horrible incidents are, however, extremely rare and exceptions. You’re most likely to be perfectly safe in any of the parks in this article. But they do prove that, sometimes, wildlife parks can be a little too realistic for their own good.
A threat to animals
Of course, you’d expect PETA to have a very strong opinion on this. And indeed, the animal protection organisation has claimed that safari parks are hardly any better than zoos. Plus, they subject the animals to, as one PETA spokeswoman put it, “a constant stream of vehicles, exhaust and unsupervised visitors.”
Online blog Freedom for Animals seconded that opinion:
“Safari parks in the UK are still zoos. Although sometimes offering larger enclosures to animals, safari parks are still zoos with the same issues and animal welfare problems. They still keep animals captive against their will. They still swap animals with other zoos. And it turns out they still force animals to live in restricted space.”
Are safari parks killing animals?
You may disagree with this notion, But one thing’s for sure: Both zoos and safari parks do raise some ethical concerns. Longleat was part of a minor scandal, when it was forced to admit that it killed off some lions – six in total, including four cubs – after having initially bred too many.
According to the park’s management, inbreading was one reason for the sad decision. More important, still, was the perceived pressure to always have cute little lion cubs to show to the public at all times. As a result, they deliberately expanded the lion’s population at all cost, to disastrous results.
What hurt even more than the admission was the fact that Longleat had already done the same before, without the public being aware of it. And it wouldn’t come as a surprise if other parks had adopted a similar strategy.
To PETA, this was one of the main arguments against these kinds of parks. Ceawlin Thynn, the Marquess’s son, vowed to take a more active role in turning these policies around. From now on, contraceptives are used whenever possible on the premises. Lions breed very quickly, so populations can easily spiral beyond control. There is a fine balance between a healthy population policy and an unhealthy one. But it does look like management have now set the course for a better future for the animals.
Safety has remained a major concern over the past decades when it comes to drive through zoos. Already when Longleat opened in the 60s, one of the most widely voiced arguments against it was fear of wild animals escaping and putting people at danger.
So far, this hasn’t even happened once. Still, at least on your end, it always pays to take all necessary precautions. In a great, personal article, Cristina Garcia has summed up some of the most effective ways to stay out of trouble:
Give wildlife room to work
Wild animals need their space, just like humans do. In case of doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.
Certainly, it helps if you know at least a little how to read signs from the animals. If an elephant’s ears are spread, for example, this is a sign that they’re disturbed – and that you should get out of their way.
Don’t corner animals with your vehicle
Most animals are far too afraid of us to even think about hurting humans.
Even wolves, all too often considered a natural enemy, would never cross our paths if they’re healthy. If you put them in a corner, however, they may feel threatened and look for a way out, no matter what.
Stay inside your vehicle at all times
This is where that Beijing park visitor made her fatal mistake: By getting out of her car at an unsafe spot. All safaris make it very clear where it’s safe to catch some fresh air and where it isn’t. Don’t put yourself at risk by ignoring their rules.
As Garcia correctly points out, it’s mostly not us humans who are at risk, though. Mostly, it’s the animals. So make sure not to feed them, to drive slowly and to take care of their safety as well as yours. Only in doing so can we prove the critics of drive through zoos wrong.
The UK’s best drive through zoos: Similar concepts
As you’ll quickly see, they are all pretty similar when it comes to their basic concept. Each of them offers a safari which allows you to get up close and personal with the animals. All have most of the most-loved species, including tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes and many, many monkeys.
On top of that, many of these parks also feature additional attractions. Dinosaur parks have been a recurring theme – which makes sense, as these ‘Jurassic Parks’ are essentially the same thing, only using mechatronic technology to make those prehistoric creatures come to life.
Finally, you can extend your trip by booking a hotel room for yourself and your family and turning things into a full-weekend-experience. Which makes a lot of sense if you’re travelling a long way to get there.
Still, there are subtle and more obvious differences between the various zoos included here. Let’s explore them as we take you on a wild ride through the best UK safari parks.
Longleat Safari Park
We’ve already spoken about this park in depth before. But we’ve haven’t yet said what makes it special. Essentially, Longleat offers the full safari experience: Amazing animals grouped into several distinct zones, ranging from the more exotic to the more local. (With regards to the latter: Longleat has an incredible ‘Wolf Wood’.)
On top of the animals, there are also plenty of ‘bonus’ activities. These frequently include insightful talks, live feedings and shows all revolving around animals. There are also plenty of VIP experiences. Take your pick: Would you rather personally feed the tigers or rent the park’s famous zebra-striped jeep to get closer to the big cats than you ever imagined.
One of the things that makes Longleat stand out is that it has so much space. There are many different animals, but management has never entered into a competition to house more species than other parks. Instead, each animal is given as much space to prosper as possible. This obviously also adds to your impression as a visitor.
Regardless of whether you’re staying only a few hours, a full day or even spending the night: Longleat is sure to be a magical visit.
West Midlands Safari Park: International Connection
Probably Longleat’s biggest competitor for the UK’s safari crown is West Midlands Safari Park. Opened in 1973 https://safarisafricana.com/best-safari-parks/, it was also one of the earliest parks to be directly inspired by Lord Bath’s success. It certainly is one of the most international ones: Run by Americans and filled to the brim with African and Asian animals, it has quickly turned into a British institution.
The park is habitated by some of the most gorgeous and impressive animals:
- congo buffalos,
- lions and
There is also a special reserve called Wild Asia, where you’ll be able to see animals not typically found in a zoo or safari park.
But there’s more!
In fact, there’s a whole lot more. Maybe it’s the American ideal of offering us as much bang for our Pound as possible. Whatever the reason, you’ll be hard pressed to fit everything this park has to offer into a single day.
On top of the animals, West Midlands has its very own theme park, which is almost worth the price of admission alone. For the younger ones, there’s Boj Giggly, a ‘multi-sensory play area’. Here, your kids can go wild on musical instruments, a super fit challenge (possibly also a good idea for the grownups after a long day in the car), plenty of entertainment events as well as a huge playground.
There’s also an area dedicated to the ice age as well as the ‘Land of the Living Dinosaurs’, where the monsters from the past are coming to life again. You can even turn into a dinosaur scientist and dig for fossils!
All of this is included in the regular entry fee. Which makes a day at West Midlands one of the greatest ways of escaping the daily grind.
Port Lympne Reserve
The reserve at Port Lympne is a bit different from other parks. Although it isn’t the UK’s best known drive through zoo, it is home to one of the parks with the longest traditions: it opened its doors to the public in 1976, ten years after Longleat and a mere three years after West Midlands.
What distinguishes Port Lympne is that it places a particularly big emphasis on animal well being. On their website, they define “ensuring the survival of endangered animals” as “the primary reason we are here”.
Animal protection is not just lip service. Management really put their money where their mouth is. And so, you can not actually drive through this reserve with your own car. Instead, you hop into one of many small buses for a comfortable guided tour through this animal kingdom. This gives keepers far more control over how visitors approach the animals and it obviously exposes them to far less stress.
Port Lympne has also established itself as a leading sanctuary for endangered species. Animals are bred at Port Lympne and then, whenever possible, brought to their natural habitat. In doing so, the park plays a remarkably active role in ensuring the survival of some of our most beloved animals friends.
The Port Lympne Experience
For visitors, truth be told, these considerations will probably not be the most important argument for coming. Instead, it helps that this is one of the UK’s most beautiful reserves, if not THE most beautiful one. Idyllically embedded into Kent’s pastoral coastal landscape, it really feels as though the animals could be locals, as though they’re truly at home here.
You’re getting a very stripped down experience here. There are no theme parks or fun fairs, and the only notable additional attraction other than the animals is a pizza place which offers authentic Italian cooking and gluten free food.
Come to think of it, Port Lympne does have one spectacular stand-out item: The UK’s largest dinosaur forest. Although the T Rex and Brontosaurus here aren’t animated, they are pretty much life-size and frighteningly realistic. It all adds up to a great day out for the entire family.
Woburn Safari Park
You rarely hear Woburn Safari Park get a mention. That’s bizarre to say the least. For one, this is one of the UK’s oldest drive through zoos, founded in 1970. Secondly, if you count in the surrounding deer park, it is not just the UK’s, but all of Europe’s largest conservation facility! Far ahead of some of the better known names already mentioned in this article.
Part of the problem may simply be that Woburn is too similar to Longleat to make it stand out. After all, the history of its founding sounds like an exact copy of the latter’s: Looking to improve on his financial situation and in a bid of collecting funds required to repair the famous Abbey located on his premises, the Duke of Bedford was inspired to step into the footsteps of Longleat. And that’s how Woburn Safari Park was born.
The plan worked. After the renovation, the Abbey has regained much of its former glory:
“Set within 3,000 acres of beautiful Deer Park, the great house itself is full of unique history and is a remarkable record of 400 years of English history. This includes the story that led the 14th Duke to creating a charity called the Tavistock Trust. The Abbey houses one of the most important private art collections in the world with over 250 works by artists including Gainsborough, Reynolds, Van Dyck and Cuyp.”
What it’s like
Once you’re inside, Woburn Safari Park offers the full package. You’ll naturally find many of the animals you’d expect from a park of its kind. The park is split into different areas, each offering a unique mood:
- Northern Plains: Bison and wild horses will make you feel like stepping into the footsteps of Indians.
- Savannah Grasslands: This is where the classic safari experience starts for real.
- Kingdom of the carnivores: Domain of the big cats, some of the most fearsome and yet fascinating and beautiful animals on the planet.
- Giraffe Junction: The Rothschild Giraffe has sadly become very rare in the wild. In Woburn, however, it seems to be thriving. If you, too, love these kind and graceful creatures, Giraffe Junction will feel like a piece of heaven on earth.
- African Forest: This is where you finally get to meet the monkeys. Watch them play and eat and tend to their little ones. Needless to say, this is one of the most popular spots in the entire park.
While you will need your own car to drive through these five areas, you can discover other parts of Woburn by foot. Combined with the park’s magnificent wolf population, which makes it stand out from most other competitors, it all adds up to an experience second to none.
Knowsley Safari Park
There may be bigger names than Knowsley. But there are no bigger trips. Amazingly, this drive through zoo is home to the UK’s longest safari route, which takes you on a 5-mile ride through its 550 acre reserve.
You can take the ride as often as you like on a single day. That may not seem like a particularly interesting fact at first. But think about it: Different animals come out at different times of day and they’ll be more or less active as well. So, the website is correct when stating: “That’s the beauty of the safari drive – its different every time you go round!”
There’s a car- and a foot safari, with the latter allowing you to get really close to the animals at a safe distance. At Knowsley, you’ll find 500 different species. Some, such as tigers, lions and elephants are regulars at safari parks. Others, like Eastern Kiang, we didn’t even know existed. Before you even start your journey, you can already find out more about each single one of them on the safari park’s online platform. This includes audio samples from the animals!
The park’s biggest lure, however, are undoubtedly the baboons. Videos of them having a go at car roof boxes have gone viral and there are entire online forum threads dedicated to whether your car will get damaged when driving through their premises. This is certainly an attraction you won’t want to miss!
Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park
Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park offers a car safari, foot trips, a fun park and a dinosaur adventure. You’ve heard all that before? Maybe. Then again, Blair Drummond has brought all of this to Scotland, making it the only Scottish drive through safar park and awarding it a unique position.
Bill Drummond is divided into four areas, which add up to an immersive experience:
- A large array of plant-eating African animals.
- The lion reserve, which features plenty of females and one male.
- Monkey Jungle: Home to Barbary macaques.
- Asian Reserve: Has a unique flavour of its own and makes for a wonderful habitat for plenty of deer and camels.
The lemur island deserves a special mention. You can’t access this part of the safari park by car. Instead you take a boat trip to the island, where various smaller monkeys are playing, relaxing and occasionally quibbling. Especially after the excitement of the long car safari, this part of the park offers some much needed respite.
Knepp Wildland Safari
This is a very special park and unlike the ones we mentioned previously. When we hear the word ‘safari’, we usually think of animals from Africa, Asia, Australia or America – far away places with exotic creatures.
Knepp is taking a different approach. These vast reserves are home to numerous species, many of which you’ll never have seen before. Still, all of them are native to the UK. It’s a space to discover what’s always been around you, to reconnect to nature and to learn about your surroundings.
As you’d expect, the Knepp Wildland Safari is not your average fun and games experience. There are plenty of educational materials available, so you can make this as deep as you want.
Animals you can see and experience here include bees, butterflies, deer and many, many different birds. You can also just enjoy the countryside and immerse yourself in the tranquillity and peace of the surroundings.
But the park keeps growing: Since animals and plants can develop mostly undisturbed here, plenty of new species are appearing constantly. Which means each and every visit to Knepp will bring you new insights and experiences.