Elephant Walk 2006

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Elephant Walk 2006

Post: # 1151Post falkor
Tue Jul 18, 2006 6:48 am

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Early years were lean for African Lion Safari: Now it's a $50m miracle;

By Meredith Macleod
The Hamilton Spectator
(Jul 17, 2006)
There were few people who didn't think Gordon "Colonel" Dailley was completely off his rocker when he decided to buy a chunk of southern Ontario farmland, bring in some lions and convince people to pay to drive through and gaze at them roaming free around their cars.

It was quite a reversal. Here, the animals would be free and the visitors would be caged.

Turns out Dailley knew exactly what he was doing. African Lion Safari now attracts more than half a million visitors a year and pumps an estimated $50 million into the local economy. It's easily this region's biggest tourist attraction.

When African Lion Safari opened in 1969, there was nothing else like it in Canada and it still remains one of only a handful of drive-through animal adventures in North America.

Most people who grew up in this area have deeply embedded memories of class trips and family outings to the Lion Safari: The mischievous baboons swiping wiper blades or hood ornaments and tossing them into the bush; the up-close encounters with sheep and goats in the petting zoo; the sight of giraffes, zebras and big cats lazing about.

There are more than 1,000 creatures great and small roaming seven large game reserves inside the confines of the Flamborough attraction. That makes African Lion Safari the third largest collection of animals open to the public in Canada, behind the Toronto and Calgary zoos.

Beyond the nine kilometres of trail through the reserves, there are also bird animal shows, a waterpark, boat rides, a scenic railway, a discovery centre and a bird of prey conservatory.

Dailley's idea was to create an experience that was fun yet educational. He worried that the population shift from rural communities to cities meant that people were losing their fundamental connection to wildlife and nature.

"He felt there was nothing wrong with entertainment, as long as there was an educational component to it," said Dailley's son, James Dailley, who is now president of the Lion Safari and co-owner with general manager Mike Takacs.

"He understood that people don't want to be educated to death."

Dailley was retired from the military when he met a circus family from England, the Chipperfields, who discovered the animals were a huge draw for locals when they were put up on farms for the winter. The idea of drive-through safaris was born.

The Chipperfields and Dailley partnered on buying four mostly abandoned farms in Flamborough. Dailley used his army pension and a $100,000 bank loan. The 250-hectare chunk of land has a lot of shale and little topsoil, but Dailley saw it as the perfect home for exotic animals. He bought out the Chipperfields in the early 1970s and passed away in 1989.

Attendance was low those first few years but has grown steadily since. Takacs says the visitor count has increased 25 per cent since the 1990s.

The one off-year was 2003 - the year of SARS - when attendance fell by about 9 per cent. While it hurt, the safari weathered the SARS scare much better than other attractions, some of which took hits of 25 and 30 per cent.

Takacs said the safari has a strong base of local attendance. About 20 per cent of visitors come from more than two hours away. The park also hasn't been adversely affected by the strong Canadian dollar, which is contributing to a drop in Americans heading north. But he is very worried the move to require passports to enter the U.S. could cut cross-border visits.

While the parking lot is often jammed with school and coach buses, about 90 per cent of the annual visitors come as families in cars, vans and SUVs.

The overall climb in visitors coincides with an investment since 1998 of $8 million in building a water park, enhancing animal housing and boosting advertising and marketing.

The hook on TV and radio ads continues to be a catchy jingle adopted in 1978. The safari is an active participant in tourism organizations and partners with dozens of other local attractions and hotels to offer visitors special packages.

African Lion Safari won a promotion and marketing campaign award from Tourism Hamilton this year and was recognized with an Ironman award from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce in 2001.

There are 45 full-time staff and about 425 seasonal workers. Takacs said they once figured out that about 8,000 kids have had summer jobs at the safari. Some of those seasonal staff have turned into long-time employees.

"We've really grown our own experts here. Farms kids are the best because they have a real understanding about what it takes to care for an animal."

There have been some stark reminders of the risk posed by encounters between humans and wild animals. Two people were mauled by a Bengal tiger through their rolled down window in 1996. In a lawsuit against the safari, the pair were awarded $2.5 million in damages in 2004. An employee was killed by a bull elephant in 1989 and several workers have been injured.

But it's a constant challenge to offer more value, more excitement, more experience for the tourist dollar. In the mid-1990s, the safari planned for a $100-million expansion that was to include an indoor waterpark, a restaurant and shopping complex, a 150-room hotel and a nine-hole golf course.

"The project was well thought out and we got the permission to do the build, but we realized it could have sunk us," said Dailley. A less ambitious expansion and upgrade happened instead.

"The key to us heading towards 40 years is that you can have a big dream but you have to live within your means and have the patience to get there or the bank would run this place."

mmacleod@thespec.com