A six-week stretch of staying home, eating, watching TV, walking the dog and helping the kids with homework can become somewhat monotonous. The last two weekends, people have discovered how to drive the blues away.
Aikman Wildlife Adventure in Arcola opened May 1 and on Mother’s Day weekend there was a steady stream of families cruising the herds outside Arcola.
“We were thankful to be able to open,” said owner James Aikman. “We knew people had been cooped up inside and would be wanting to get out and do something. We thought we might get new customers. About 70% of the people who have come since we opened this season have never been here before. And, they can’t wait to come back.”
James Aikman said that the first weekend they opened this season, for just the drive-through portion, they had 600 cars in four days, Thursday through Monday. Then on Mother’s Day Weekend, they had over 1,000.
“Saturday, we had something we never have happen before this year,” Aikman said. “There were vehicles lined up on the road outside the entrance.”
The line stretched about a quarter of mile down the road and stayed that way for most of the afternoon, as people gradually drove in and more vehicles showed up to line up outside the park.
The former grounds of Rockhome Gardens, was purchased in 2015 and was converted into Aikman’s Wildlife Adventure and opened in 2016. Every year from 30-40,000 people come to the park for the drive-through , the walk-through, and the animal encounters.
Because of the Illinois “modified stay-at-home order, not all of the wildlife adventure is open, yet, this season. That did not dissuade hundreds of people looking for something to do.
On Saturday, a 45-minute drive from Shelbyville, was followed by a 45-minute wait out on the country road to enter the park. A steady line of cars inched their way through the main gate.
There was a 45-minute drive through the park to see the animals and another 45-minute drive home.
Motorists nearest to the front gate, while waiting to get in, got a glimpse of llamas, deer, elk and camels (one hump or two) in the area visible from the road.
The cost of the drive through tour is normally $25 per carload. However, the owners have only been charging a donation during this time, still suggested at $25 or whatever donation people want to make.
After a brief safety orientation, the vehicles of parents and kids, or grandparents and grandkids, drove over the cattle guards and amidst the herd.
There are over 200 animals, comprised of over 70 different species native to 6 different continents at the wildlife park. Some animals, carnivores especially, are only in the walk through tour. Over half of the animals are available in the drive-through, including the popular camels and zebras.
There are some animals common to rural America, but others, not so much. Motorists drive alongside of wild turkeys and a few Toulouse Geese. There were buffalo, a blue wildebeest, a Watusi, a Zebu and a few rams. There were Mouflon Sheep, Fallow Deer, Rocky Mountain Elk and a Texas Dall Sheep. Seldom was heard a discouraging word where the deer and a dozen antelope play.
There were water buffalo and Scottish Highlander cattle. Zebra are not something seen every day in Central Illinois, but they are seen every day at Aikman’s, two varieties.
Burros were friendly, as well as a crossbred zedonk, a Semitar Horned Oryx and some full-size horses, as well as miniatures. Emus, didn’t put their heads in the sand, but were oblivious to the cars passing by.
On October of 2013, James Aikman, a banker, had a dream of him and his wife, Kelsey, owning and operating a wildlife park. The next night he had the exact same dream. He felt like this was something God was wanting them to do. His wife said that if it was really from God then he would find a way to make it happen.
Aikman says that God began opening door after door and more opportunities and business sponsorships began forming.
At the time he had the dream, Rockome Gardens was still operating. They closed the next year. The family purchased the former Rockome Gardens in September of 2015, and created the 40-acre wildlife park. They opened in 2016.
“This is one of the last things, I thought I would ever do,” Aikman said. “My family was not part of the original dream. That came later. Now it has become a family business with my brothers involved and we want to leave a legacy.”
Aikman says that over the last few years, they have had people come from as far away as 5-6 hours and get a motel room. Even this year they have had people come from two or three hours away just for the drive-through.
When the stay at home order is lifted, they will be opening the rest of the park, probably starting with small groups going through the animal encounters and when permitted the rest of the park.
The drive-through adventure is now open, Thursdays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.