Safari North opens ‘Expedition Safari’ next month

Safari North Wildlife Park opens May 8 (aka Mother's Day weekend) with a new exhibit “Expedition Safari” that features lions, hyenas, monkeys, zebras, wildebeest, ostrich, buffalo and more, and a locomotive train guests can ride through the new exhibit.

Owner of Safari North Wildlife Park Kevin Vogel reaches out to three ostriches Wednesday, April 14, 2021, who will be part of "Expedition Safari", a new exhibit at the park located eight miles southwest of Brainerd. Opening on May 8, visitors will be able to ride a wheeled train through a 10-acre open area to view the various animals and birds at the attraction. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Not sure what to do on Mother’s Day weekend? How about a virtual trip to Africa?

Safari North Wildlife Park opens May 8 for the season with its new “Expedition Safari” exhibit featuring lions, hyenas, monkeys, zebras, wildebeest, ostrich, buffalo, eland and more.

“It just kind of fits to open on a good holiday,” said Kevin Vogel, co-owner of the popular Brainerd lakes area tourist attraction along Highway 371 about 8 miles southwest of Brainerd.

Safari North will also be the only zoo in the area with cheetahs, which are part of the park’s big cat offerings that include tigers, lions, jaguar and leopards, according to officials.


“I don’t know if we’ll have them before we open just because we have to finish the exhibit and stuff yet, but we’re hoping to have them here before Memorial Day weekend,” Vogel said.

“Cheetahs are just fascinating animals. I think people are just going to just really enjoy seeing them. It’s something that you don’t see unless you go to, like, one of the bigger zoos, so we’re very, very fortunate to be able to be part of that program,” he said.

The large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia is listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species because the global population is estimated to number less than 6,674 mature individuals.

Kevin Vogel, owner of Safari North Wildlife Park, reaches out to an ostrich in an area which will become "Expedition Safari", an open area where visitors can ride a train to view the animals and birds. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Safari North Wildlife Park already features bears, tigers, kangaroos, leopards, cougars, bobcats, alligators, lynx, lemurs, monkeys, otters, zebras, porcupines, warthogs, hyenas and barnyard animals, according to Explore Minnesota, the state’s official tourism website.


“We see families come back year after year because of the experience we provide them and the animals. We love spreading our vast knowledge of these animals, so we can all appreciate their place and importance in our ecosystem,” Vogel said.

The mission of Safari North Wildlife Park is to promote life-long learning, conservation and preservation through safe, affordable and memorable experiences with animals of all types. The park specializes in up-close and personal experiences with the animals.

Kevin Vogel sits in the cab Wednesday, April 14, 2021, of the newly refurbished wheeled train that will transport visitors through "Expedition Safari" at Safari North Wildlife Park. Riders will be in a 10-acre field where the animals will roam free. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Trackless train a new addition

Admission to the Expedition Safari exhibit will cost $5 more than the standard park admission or $4 more for members of the park, which features 150 species from North America, Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and Australia. The train ride is included in Expedition Safari.

Guests can take in the 10-acre safari by riding a locomotive train through the new exhibit. Safari North purchased it from the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, North Dakota, and it’s new to the park.

Nilgai watch visitors Wednesday, April 14, 2021, who will be touring "Expedition Safari" in a wheeled train when Safari North Wildlife Park opens on May 8. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch


“Expedition Safari was pretty much in the works for the last few years — something that we wanted to do and expand on. And we had actually bought the train before the pandemic,” he said. “Once we had a good season, it allowed us to be able to do the expansion.”

Vogel said it’s a great way to view the animals at the park.

“It’s a trackless train — it’s not on a track — and it goes about 10 acres. … And then in the grassy area — roaming free — we’ve got some wildebeest and zebras and ostrich and lots of different animals that will be, you know, just roaming in the safari area,” Vogel said.

The two-car locomotive can hold between 35 and 40 people, according to Vogel, and the train will include a sound system.

“We’ll talk about the animals as we go through the Expedition Safari. … There’s nobody around anywhere that’s got a train ride like this. It’s gonna be, I think, a really cool and unique experience,” he said.

Coming back strong in 2021

Vogel acknowledged the park got off to a rocky start in 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic.

“At first, when the pandemic hit last year, right away we lost all our school groups, so we lost a few thousand kids, you know, not being able to come. And then, of course, we weren’t allowed to open right away.


Owner of Safari North Wildlife Park Kevin Vogel interacts with one of the ostriches at the park Wednesday, April 14, 2021.. Visitors will be able to ride a wheeled train through a 10-acre fenced in area and view animals and birds at the attraction. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Last year, Safari North Wildlife Park was slated to open May 9 but opened May 18 because of the governor’s social distancing measures. It offered only drive-thru admission through the park before fully reopening June 1 to foot traffic.

RELATED: Wildlife zoos fear going extinct with delayed season openers
“We were able to open as a drive-thru for about two weeks, which was great, people came, but, you know, we did it at a reduced rate just because you couldn’t see everything,” Vogel said. “But it was great to see people.”

All the drive-thru guests received a coupon for 50% off a visit when the park was open entirely; at that time, season passes and gift shop items would be an additional 10% off.

RELATED: Safari North Wildlife Park offers drive-thru admission
“The stress level was, you know, pretty outstanding,” Vogel said of all the uncertainty.

In July, a woman and her son jumped into the fenced-in, cordoned-off outdoor alligator pit to retrieve her wallet and were able to escape injury but not the infamy that followed from a 2-minute video that went viral. Vogel said he only learned of it afterward.

RELATED: In viral video, woman and son climb into Safari North gator pit to retrieve wallet


But overall, 2020 proved a success for Safari North.

“But once we got open, we ended up having a very good season,” Vogel said.

Guests can also feed the giraffes, ride camels and mine for gemstones at the park, which includes a barnyard petting zoo.

“We’re continuously making improvements here and making our guest experiences better, so we’re just looking forward to a great season and to everybody coming out and having a great time,” Vogel said.

Safari North Wildlife Park will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily starting May 8. For more information, visit or call 218-454-1662.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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