NAPLES — As they humped along, Eric Clarke and his 5-year-old son shared a new ride at the Naples Zoo.
Camel rides are a new but temporary addition at the zoo off Goodlette-Frank Road.
Before noon Friday, Clarke got in line with his son to give one of the camels a try.
He wasn’t disappointed.
“I like the fact that he liked it,” Eric Clarke said, looking over at his son, after the short, guided safari-style ride was over.
The Clarkes were visiting from Baltimore.
“I thought it was neat – very unique,” Eric Clarke, 36, said of the ride. “I don’t know of many zoos that have that.”
His son, sitting back in his stroller, nodded enthusiastically in agreement with his dad. This was his first time riding a camel, he said.
The camel rides have been “wildly successful,” said Thom Sears, the out-of-town vendor that’s offering them daily at the zoo through May 2.
There are two dromedary to ride – Joshua, 12, and Josephine, 11. Thom Sears, 63, and his wife, Lizette, 53, run Hole in the Wall Farms, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in Ohio. They raised the two camels, who were “preemies,” at their farm, he said.
The camels now weigh 2,000 pounds and stand 8 feet, 6 inches tall. They came to Naples by semi-truck.
Thom Sears is overseeing the rides, which are running near the back of the zoo along an unpaved trail around a swamp.
“We’re very proud to be here,” he said. “This is one of the most prestigious zoos in the country.”
The rides start daily at 11 a.m. and run until 4:45 p.m. Lines form quickly when they open. As many as four people can ride a camel at a time. Single riders are discouraged.
On a safari, these animals can carry as much as 1,000 pounds. They are known as “ships of the desert.”
“Unless your last name is straw, we can ride you,” Sears joked.
On a slow day, he’s getting 100 riders a day. He did about 300 on free Saturday last week, said David Tetzlaff, the zoo’s director.
The first Saturday of the month, the zoo offers free admission to all Collier County residents. It draws thousands of visitors.
The camel ride is not included with zoo admission. It’s an extra $5.
“I’ve seen all ages ride the camels. I’ve seen parents hold their infants in their laps and senior citizens do it,” Tetzlaff said.
He hasn’t had time to ride one himself. But they’ve nuzzled his neck.
“They are just great animals,” Tetzlaff said.
The money generated from the rides is being shared by the zoo and Hole in the Wall Farms.
“It all goes to operations,” Tetzlaff said.
This is the first time in the zoo’s 40-plus-year history that it’s had camels.
A ride on Joshua on Friday brought back memories for Amanda Fennig, 29. She said she hadn’t been on a camel since she was a little girl. She shared the ride with her son, Owen, 21⁄2.
“I think it was good,” she said. “It was fun.”
They were first-time visitors to the zoo, coming from Wisconsin.
With the success of the rides, Thom Sears hopes to continue offering them at the zoo in the winter.
“If they’ll have us back, we’d love to,” he said. “We hope to come back.”
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.