It's one thing to run a successful dairy farm, another to run a wild animal park. Somehow Hans Boxler manages to do both.
Truly hidden off Route 20A in Varysburg is the Hidden Valley Animal Adventure -- a must-visit summer destination.
The "tail" of the Hidden Valley Animal Adventure began in 2002 when Boxler, then just a dairy farmer, purchased his first elk and bison as a hobby.
One animal led to another, and another, which led to the idea of an animal park. After seeing a similar operation in Ohio, Boxler decided to open his own to show some of his animals and help defray some costs.
Last June, the 175-acre Hidden Valley Animal Adventure was born. It resides next door to the Boxler dairy farm.
Of course the kid appeal of this place is off the charts. After all who can resist getting dusty, dirty and feeding giant water buffaloes? Not us! So gather up your own little critters (kids, no pets allowed) for a fun family day.
> Animal adventure
The first thing you'll see is a beautiful lodge equipped with two restaurants, restrooms and even a couple of rooms to rent.
There's a huge pond, a covered bridge and gazebo that overlooks water where waterfowl madly paddle away. Be sure to look for the rare black swans.
Trolleys hooked to giant red Case tractors are lined up, ready to tow guests.
A ticket gets you a ride and a giant cup of feed. You'll be tempted to give it all away early, but save some for later. Or, you can purchase additional feed for $2 per cup.
"Brave Burt" fired up the tractor and drove while our guide gave us the rules. Approaching the gates to the animal compound, we joked that it felt like "Jurassic Park."
Burt drove us over the creek and through the woods smack dab into an episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, the Marlin Perkins years.
It's fascinating -- the animals are together, yet don't really mix with each other.
Elk under the trees, yaks over yonder, buffaloes lying around minding their own beeswax.
Slowly the tractor pulled us through, making stops here and there. Some animals approached for food, but it was a scorching hot day, so others stayed put. Who could blame them?
We spotted a tiny, day-old antelope-like creature with its watchful mother. (The guide told us what it was, but it's hard to keep them straight.) It was darling as it tested its wobbly legs. Equally sweet was the shaggy baby yak.
The comic relief came from animals lounging in the tractor path, refusing to move. Brave Burt would dismount to shoo them away.
We loved the gigantic water buffaloes, plastered and smelly with wet mud. Their immense heads and horns were incredible to see close up. Feeding them was terrifying yet exhilarating. Check out those choppers if you go!
In the cattle department, we marveled at the humongous horns of the Texas longhorns and their African-looking cousins (Ankole-Watusi). Our favorites were the shaggy Scottish Highlands with Justin Bieber/early Beatles hair (depending on your era).
Wacky ostriches provided more comedy. Not shy, these big birds came right up with their goofy, smiling-looking beaks, ready to peck the daylights out of our feed cups.
We learned Topeaka, a camel, recently gave birth. Mom and baby boy are expected to debut this summer. We also learned the kangaroo had escaped (but not totally) and should be back!
There are more than 30 species of animals. We loved seeing both familiar and new ones. If you go, have the kids brush up on their animal identifications, or take pictures to share in school next year.
> A food adventure
The lower part of the lodge has the Trailside Grill, which serves burgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken sandwiches, fries, ice cream and more. Tables are inside or out. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays).
Upstairs there is finer (and more adventurous) dining, with several exotic menu items (alligator bites, elk meat meatballs, buffalo meat chili, wild boar). There's also a Friday fish fry. Hours are 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday. Closed Saturdays for weddings and events.
> If you go:
Hidden Valley Animal Adventure, 2887 Royce Road, Varysburg, is fully handicapped-accessible. Call (585) 535-4100 or visit www.hiddenvalleyanimaladventure.com. Private and corporate events can be arranged.
Take Route 20A out of East Aurora to Route 98S and go right for about a quarter mile. Take the first left onto Farm Road, then right onto Royce Road.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday-Monday June 25-Sept. 5. Afterward, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 30; open Columbus Day.
Admission: $16 adults; children 3-10, $12; children 2 and under free. Group tour prices available. Purchase tickets at the Trailside Grill bar.
> More to do
Along 20A, you'll pass the Byrncliff Resort (www.byrncliff.com; 585-7300). Since Varysburg isn't a long ride, you could make a full day or even a mini-overnight vacation by hitting the resort's outdoor pool and mini-golf course. A pool and mini-golf day pass runs $8 adults, seniors (60 ) and youth (11-17) $7; $6 for children ages 10 and under. July/August hours are 3 to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Kids party specials (10 or more kids) are available with prior arrangements.