It feels like everyone in this state has a memory of it.
The mere mention of the drive-thru safari at Six Flags Great Adventure conjures up nostalgia of long-ago summer family trips in plenty of native New Jerseyans. Ask enough people about the drive-thru, and you’ll inevitably hear about minivans mobbed by baboons and sunroofs licked clean by curious giraffes.
But those memories are not mine.
I’ve only lived in New Jersey for three years; I have no experience with or emotional attachment to the safari drive-thru.
So when I visited the newly reopened attraction on Friday morning, I was taking everything in with fresh eyes, an open mind and no expectations. And, of course, the inescapable consideration of the coronavirus pandemic which has affected every corner of society.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been to the new version of the park’s safari before. I’ve sat in the back of the old military trucks with dozens of other guests as they trundle through the 350-acre attraction, with Six Flags employees calling out trivia facts about a few of the 1,200 animals on display.
And I’ve been behind the scenes once before, to visit the elephant barn and meet Joyce, one of seven elephants living at Six Flags Great Adventure.
But those things are different from the experience of driving your own car through the safari, something that an estimated 10 million Six Flags guests did from 1974, when the park opened, to 2012 when the drive-thru experience was phased out.
I got my first taste of this classic New Jersey experience on Friday when I set out with a photographer and a videographer (each of us in separate cars for proper social distancing) to join scores of other people at the preview day for the revamped safari drive-thru.
The route through the safari is just under five miles long and took more than an hour-and-a-half to complete. We started just after 10 a.m., about an hour after other people had already begun their tours.
That means we joined a seemingly endless string of cars meandering through the safari, a constant string of taillights in front of me and headlights behind me. After weeks of smooth, easy driving on the Turnpike and the Parkway — both emptied as much of society works from home — this was a bit of a shock.
I was in a traffic jam in Jackson. In a zoo. Surrounded by animals, most of whom were not behind fences. It felt surreal.
Here I should note that Six Flags does not release attendance figures for its parks, so I don’t know exactly how many people travelled through the safari on Friday. But Kristin Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the park, said that “several thousand” cars can visit the safari each day.
Traffic may have been worse on Friday than it needed to be. Fitzgerald said afterwards that Six Flags staff noticed guests stayed in a single-file line throughout the day. She said that there is no rule requiring this — guests are allowed to pass other guests as long as they respect the five-mile-per-hour speed limit and yield to animals.
And one more thing on attendance — Fitzgerald said the Safari is booked up for this weekend. That comes after the online reservation system for the attraction crashed shortly after launch on Wednesday. The website troubles persisted through the afternoon, Fitzgerald said, before being fully resolved on Wednesday evening. She said that reservations have been working well since then.
The trip through the safari is broken into sections, with a ride through the American plains (buffalo!) giving way to the African grassland (elephants! rhinos! zebras!), before moving on to lions and bears. Then there’s a reprieve from apex predators with a trip through the Australia section (kangaroos!), before getting back to big cats with tigers.
To anyone who has cruised through the safari in the back of the massive Six Flags trucks in recent years, all of this will feel very familiar. The animals are the same, and for the most part they all act the same. Some were curious about the strange new vehicles, others barely noticed and even more simply slept.
I’m quick to admit that I love animals, so I thoroughly enjoyed just sitting back and taking it all in. The brief moment that a group of galloping wildebeests circled my car as they moved from one shady area to another was especially delightful.
At times, I did find myself wanting a little more — someone to tell about what I’m seeing. I wouldn’t say that I could identify by name most of the species I saw, especially the assorted varieties of hoofed and antlered creatures.
Good luck googling fun facts about something that you don’t know the name of.
For that reason, I at times felt like I preferred the Six Flags trucks to the drive-thru tour. Sure, the trucks can be crowded with strangers and you may not always have a great view — the comfort of your own car has the big upper-hand there. But the trucks come with a tour guide, and that’s pretty nice.
The journey ends by passing through the Baboon Village, a place where I’m told an uncountable number of primate-on-car aggressions once occurred. Those days are over. Today the baboons are kept behind a fence.
This is the first time that the general public has been able to see the baboons since the original drive-thru closed, as the revamped truck tour skips the baboon section in the interest of time. The only exceptions since 2013 have been VIP tours of the safari.
Maybe it was the fact that I was visiting at basically lunchtime on a hot, sunny day, but the dozens of baboons were downright docile. Most seemed perfectly content to sit atop a jungle gym and watch the string of cars go by.
I envied the baboons. Here I was, stuck alone inside my car on a beautiful day after having stayed voluntarily separated from so many friends and family over the past few months as we all do our best to keep from spreading the coronavirus. And there they were, seemingly with no worries in the world, surrounded by what I assume are their friends and families. The only thing new about their life being a stream of strange cars.
I wondered, just for a moment, if they were more entertaining to us or if we were more entertaining to them.
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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.