During my childhood, Sarasota Jungle Gardens was a frequent destination thanks to my grandmother, who would take my brother and me there. Witnessing the animals was always a delightful experience. I particularly enjoyed the bird show featuring parrots on roller skates, and Frosty, the cockatoo, showcasing impressive skills on a unicycle. Feeding the flamingos was also a consistent highlight.
I had the pleasure of revisiting the park recently, and it retained its magical charm. The pathways winding through the lush vegetation triggered nostalgic memories, and feeding the flamingos as an adult brought back the same excitement as it did in my childhood—although this time, I couldn't resist capturing photos for my Instagram, of course!
Sarasota Jungle Gardens is an authentic Florida roadside attraction, with a history dating back to the 1930s. It is home to over 200 species of animals and one of the oldest continuously operating attractions in Florida. It stands out as the sole location in the U.S. where you can engage in the unique experience of feeding flamingos.
Over the years, I've enjoyed exploring the gardens in various ways. Beyond the diverse array of animals residing in the zoo, some creatures, like Princess Leia, an opossum rescued from her mother's pouch after she was killed by a car, travel to different places, including schools, community centers, and libraries, for educational purposes.
Exploring Sarasota Jungle Gardens, as I did with my grandmother, has now touched four generations in my family. Enrolling in the Zoo Camp provided my son with a hands-on educational experience through demonstrations and various activities. His most cherished memory of the camp was caring for a baby deer named Bambi, who had a chicken as her best friend.
Originally, Sarasota Jungle Gardens was intended to be a botanical garden. When David Breed Lindsay, a local newspaperman, purchased 19 acres of land just west of U.S. 41 in the Indian Shores neighborhood. Breed enlisted the help of his friend and neighbor, Pearson Conrad, a nearby nursery owner, to assist him in his plan. Conrad employed his skills as a landscape architect and over a few years planned lakes and streams that would wind through the site and feed the lush gardens that he and Breed planned and planted. Thousands of tropical plants, trees, and flowers were imported from around the world, carefully chosen to harmonize with native species, according to the Jungle Gardens website.
In 1936, as the manicured jungle attracted daily wanderers, Lindsay and Conrad began charging an admission fee. On New Year's Eve 1939, Sarasota Jungle Gardens officially opened to the public, captivating both locals and tourists eager to marvel at the lush vegetation. The admission was 10 cents for children, 35 cents for adults, according to an article published by Jana Susan Paley a member of the Sarasota History and SRQ Quiz Facebook group.
In 1971, Arthur C. Allyn, an amateur entomologist with a passion for studying butterflies, took ownership of the park alongside his daughter, Dorothy Lavick Tinney. Allyn, known for owning Major League Baseball's Chicago White Sox and hosting their Spring Training in Sarasota for many years, Sarasota Jungle Gardens presented an ideal opportunity for him to transform his hobby into a profession.
While Allyn's primary focus was on the study of butterflies, he and his daughter also shared an interest in birds and reptiles. Recognizing the potential to enhance the park's popularity, they decided to incorporate various members of the wild kingdom into Sarasota Jungle Gardens.
They resided on the ground, their house now serving as the Flamingo Café, and the Koi Pond, adjacent to the snack bar, was initially their swimming pool connected to the estate house.
In the early '70s, the Gardens introduced the first Exotic Bird Show, featuring Macaws and Cockatoos trained by prison inmates from California, aptly dubbed "The Jail Birds." According to Dorothy's son Chris Lavick in an interview with WUSF, the first birds came to Jungle Gardens from California's San Quentin Prison where they were trained to do different tricks including riding a bicycle and painting. Lavick told Carter, "It was good therapy for the prisoners and the birds ended up entertaining people for years after that." Some of these original birds continue to participate in the bird shows today.
Allyn’s fascination with butterflies and moths led him to establish one of the largest preserved collections in the world. He first created a substantial butterfly garden that gained global recognition, eventually leading to the formation of the Allyn Museum of Entomology at Jungle Gardens. This museum operated as a branch of the University of Florida's Florida Museum of Natural History until 2004 when it relocated to McGuire Hall on the Gainesville campus. While it was a loss for our beloved local gardens, it is now more accessible to researchers and scholars.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the reptiles at the park. The “Reptile Encounter” is a favorite among visitors prompting two shows per day. With the intention of educating the masses about the benefits of our reptilian friends, they also provide insta-worthy photo ops.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens has evolved into one of the area's most historical and beautiful attractions. It has inspired children's books, served as the backdrop for fashion photo shoots, documentaries, and television shows, and actively engages in community outreach programs in local schools, nursing homes, and special events.
Truly, Sarasota Jungle Gardens has left an indelible mark on millions of lives and continues to do so each and every day.