After 38 years of dodging ostriches and hoping the giraffes would not notice sunroofs, drivers will no longer be able to motor through what has been billed as the largest drive-through safari outside Africa.
Six Flags Great Adventure announced Monday that it will halt the traffic at its 350-acre Jackson Township, N.J., preserve as of Sept. 30.
The adjacent amusement section of the park - which features huge roller coasters and other rides - will continue to operate as usual. But guests will no longer be allowed to drive their vehicles or take guided bus tours through the animal sanctuary that afforded an up-close and personal look at animals from six continents, including lions, tigers, bears, rhinos, elephants, and other creatures.
The 1,200 animals will stay put, but details about just what will happen to the Wild Safari, which has attracted 10 million visitors since it opened in 1974, won't be disclosed until Aug. 30, according to Kristen B. Siebeneicher, a spokeswoman for Six Flags.
Siebeneicher said the change is part of an overall plan to update the park based on feedback from guests and marketing research. The safari attraction will close this season about a month sooner than its traditional October closure.
"This is really all about creating new and exciting attractions for our guests," Siebeneicher said, denying that the plan had anything to do with rising insurance costs or pressure from animal-rights groups. "This attraction has remained virtually unchanged for 38 years."
Park guests have so far been allowed to purchase tickets to enter only the safari area through a special gate, without buying passes for the amusement portion of the attraction, which has a separate entrance.
Safari-only passes cost $23 a person, while general admission to the amusement park is $63 for adults and $40 for children.
Two people familiar with discussions about the safari's future, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the change may be part of a plan to steer more guests to the main amusement area before they can enter the safari section, possibly aboard special Six Flags all-terrain vehicles.
Siebeneicher would not comment on this speculation and would not say what specifically led to the decision to close to safari to private vehicular traffic.
She declined to release business data, such as the number of visitors to a specific attraction or section of the park.
Six Flags Entertainment Corp., with headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas, and New York, owns and operates 19 regional theme parks and water parks: 17 in the United States and one each in Mexico City and Montreal.
Only two of the sites offer animal parks, and New Jersey's has been the only one to allow the drive-through tours.
In July, Six Flags reported that net income had more than doubled companywide in the second quarter, in part due to increased attendance. Six Flags emerged from bankruptcy protection two years ago.
"Animal preservation and education has been a cornerstone of Six Flags Great Adventure since we opened our gates in 1974. While significant changes are on our horizon, our veterinary and animal husbandry staff will continue to provide excellent care for the more than 70 species of exotic and domestic animals that live here," park president John Fitzgerald said in a written statement.
Perhaps surprisingly, the sprawling safari - where many animals are allowed to roam freely on and around a winding roadway through the preserve - has posed few safety issues over the decades it has operated in the populated suburban area in central New Jersey.
Animals that would pose a threat - such as the big cats and elephants - are secured behind fences and moats.
In the most recent safety incident involving the animals, in July 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Six Flags for failing to provide a structurally sound facility for its primates.
Two adult baboons, and the young offspring of one of them, were able to escape their primary enclosure in two separate incidents after scaling a fence and flipping over five strands of "hot wire" electrical fence and leaving through an exit gate. All three animals were safely returned to the sanctuary soon after escaping, according to the USDA report.
Safari director Bill Rives, who also serves as chief veterinarian, said the drive-through has become an "institution for many families whose first glimpse of exotic animals was with their faces pressed up against a car window."
"That chapter of our history is now drawing to a close," Rives said in a news release inviting guests to take a last drive through the safari park before the gates are closed for good on Sept. 30.
Animal-rights activists say the closing doesn't come soon enough.
"It's about time for Six Flags to stop this practice of subjecting animals to vehicles and car exhaust for entertainment purposes," said Ashley Byrne, a spokeswoman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
She urged Six Flags to "take the next step" and move all the animals to sanctuaries not linked to amusement parks.