By DANIELLA RAPPARPORT
Before Los Olivos, Irvine Meadows and Wild Rivers there was Lion Country. Irvine is well known for its safety and normality, but, back in the 70’s, it was known for Lion Country, where attendents could drive through a four mile preserve alongside African wildlife. Lions, hippos, giraffes and ostriches would be right outside your car window, sometimes even on your car. The attraction inhabited the area in 1970 and stayed for fourteen long years until it was closed down for economic reasons due to lowering attendance in 1984 (OC Register).
At its height, the park brought visitors from far and wide to see it’s glorious animals. The superstar of the park, Frasier the lion, was the hit of the safari. As a young girl, Ms. Nora Seager (Social Science Dept.) remembers, “They had an old lion, Frasier, that was everybody’s favorite. As a little kid, lots of things around the county would have Frasier’s face on it. He was the Orange County mascot.” TIME magazine describes the tale of Frasier joining the attraction when he was a 19 years old — 75 in human years — and was no longer needed by the Mexican circus he was apart of. When Frasier joined the park, he was underweight, lazy and unpopular with the lionesses. However, when his handlers put him on a special diet to put on weight, Frasier was suddenly a hit with the lionesses that once refused to mate with him earning him the nickname “Simba the Sex Symbol”. All the lionesses would protect him and bring him food. Within 16 weeks, Fraiser fathered 33 cubs. Frasier died in 1972 and was buried beneath a cross on the grounds of Lion Country (TIME). Today, if you walk along the Los Olivos trail, there is a plaque and oak tree dedicated to the lion that roamed more than 40 years ago.
The park was loved by many, with it’s main rules being no convertibles and no windows down. Seager explained that this was a problem in the 70’s during her visits.
“The bad part about it was that when you came in most cars did not have air conditioning and you can’t go through with any windows down so they had to remind families that you needed a car with air conditioning because, the minute you even roll down a little of your window, the animals could try to get in. I think the first time my family went it was a hot day and we didn’t having air conditioning so it was kind of miserable.” The next visit Seager said they remembered to have air conditioning.
A thirteen year old Mr. Josh Davis (World Language Dept.) once came to Lion Country all the way from Detroit. Davis recounts his visit, saying that “it was great we saw all the animals and a lion jumped on our car. At the end of the trip there was an arcade where you could play carnival arcade games. I really wanted to play throw the ball in the milk jar, which is a complete rip off. You never win right? And my aunt was like “No! No! No!” but I had a few of my own dollars so I spent my own money and, on my first throw, the ball went right in and I won the biggest prize possible, a huge purple pig, which I still have. It took forever to figure out how to get it home from LA to Detroit.”
Mr. Jon Pendleton (Social Science Dept.) has an odd recollection of the park, “Lion Country Safari just seemed small to me. I was small back then, so, for it to seem small, it probably was. I remember seeing lions outside the car window but it’s not like any of the animals moved. They were kind of lazy I don’t know if they were drugged or just got fed or what, but that’s what I remember.”
The park was well loved by many for a long time. However, as animal rights advocacies became more prominent and a few too many animal escapes occurred, the park lost popularity and money.
A few fatal accidents even occurred. The OC Register writes about a hippo, Bubbles, that escape in 1978. Bubbles hid in a drainage ditch behind the park for 19 days before being shot with a tranquilizer and dying due to falling awkwardly. In 1983, a year before the park closed down, an Asian elephant, Misty, escaped after an Irvine Meadows concert. When the park warden tried to rechain her, the elephant stepped on his skull, killing him. Misty continued her escape onto I-405, where she caused a traffic jam before being recaptured 3 hours later.
In 1986, parts of where Lion Country once was became the Wild Rivers water park, until it was closed by the Irvine Company in 2011. Irvine Meadows received the same fate. The amphitheater opened next to Lion Country in 1980, but was closed by the Irvine Company in October 2016. The land that once was Lion Country is now occupied by Los Olivos, the biggest apartment complex in Orange County. Seager says, “I think it’s even sadder now that they shut the amphitheater down. We are once again in Orange County growing houses.”