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A NATURAL MONEYMAKER // Safari thrives on model menagerie

Daniel Searfoss shares his two-bedroom Tampa home with more than 1,000 dinosaurs.

The 38-year-old truck mechanic has model prehistoric creatures lurking in every room of his house, even the bathroom.

Searfoss, who has collected the critters since childhood, can recite each one's scientific name, where it roamed and what it ate. "It's one of those interests that never dies," he said.

His paleo passion may strike some as odd, but he's not alone. Hollywood movies and educational television shows have helped create a strong market for nature toy sales to both adults and children.

One of the big benefactors of the trend is Safari Limited, a tiny business that started in a Miami retiree's condominium and eventually blossomed into a $20-million company.

"We've been in business 18 years and we've never had a down year in domestic sales," said Kevin Godbee, Safari's marketing manager.

Competition for shelf space in today's slow-growing toy business is brutal. The big retail toy chains only stock the toys that are backed by huge marketing and advertising budgets.

Educational toys are only a 5 percent slice of the nation's $20.7-billion toy industry, according to NPD Group. But sales of educational toys grew at about 6 percent in 1996, almost twice the rate of the overall toy industry.

Safari wisely carved out a niche that played on the rapid growth of nature stores and museum stores over the past decade. Museums have been devoting more space to retail operations to help make money. Zoos learned from theme parks that visitors clamor for souvenirs. The growth of chains such as Natural Wonders and the Nature Co. opened up lots of mall space for companies that make back-to-nature goods.

To reach buyers obsessed with authenticity, Safari signed an exclusive deal with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1993. Safari's Carnegie Collection replicates one of the largest dinosaur collections in the world, which was sculpted under the guidance of the museum's paleontologists.

Each one comes with a certificate of authenticity. Some of the solid vinyl creatures are heavy enough to require a child to use both hands to hoist them. The hand-painted details include toenails and teeth. Some of Safari's models made an appearance in the movie Jurassic Park. Key Bank of Florida buys hundreds of them every year to be given to kids who open new savings accounts.

The company also developed a jungle animal series that features hippos, lions, tortoises and 24 other wild creatures. The sea life replicas made by Safari were sculpted under the watchful eyes of curators from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. All of this helps the company distinguish itself from others. "The number one reason why we outperform typical toy companies is we're not a typical toy company," Godbee said.

Not all the replicas are candidates yet for True Life Adventures. TV series such as the X-Files, Dark Skies and Sightings have sent sales of Safari's "realistic" alien models out of this world.

"How can we make an accurate alien?" Godbee said. "Our aliens are based on documented sightings and encounters. Most alien toys are made-up bad guys, but with our products there probably are some people who believe they exist."

In the company's Miami headquarters, dinosaurs and animal models are displayed in virtually every room. Employees' personal favorites prowl the desktops. The main conference room is a kaleidoscope of color, jammed with each of the more than 1,000 educational toys Safari makes.

"When I came here for my job interview, the first time I walked in the conference room it took my breath away," said Kelly Weidhaas, Safari's product manager.

The company manufactures and wholesales to a broad range of 4,000 retail stores ranging from Zany Brainy to PetSmart. Toy stores are the company's slowest-growing point of distribution. Gift shops, museums and zoos are the fastest-growing, now accounting for more than 30 percent of sales.

"Safari's products represent 15 to 20 percent of what we sell," said Vera Martin, gift shop manager at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry. Safari's products are also big sellers at the Florida Aquarium, Busch Gardens and many independent stores such as Timothy's Toys in St. Petersburg.

Educational toy sales are expected to continue to grow for a couple of reasons.

"I think what we're seeing is the baby boomer generation buying educational toys for the next generation, and they will pay to make sure their children have the best of everything," said Mary Lou Burde, a toy industry analyst for Standard & Poor's Corp.

Plus they have appeal to kids of all ages.

"We figure we sell more toys to parents than kids," said Doug Rubel, Safari's vice president and co-owner.

Quality has its price. Safari's largest dinosaur, the Apatosaurus, retails for $24.95, pretty steep for some mall impulse shoppers. It's one reason Natural Wonders retail stores stopped selling Safari's dinosaurs.

"Safari's dinosaurs are geared more toward museums," said Martin, "Usually the mall buyer is not a collector. What they want to buy is a toy."

Martin said she is most impressed with Safari's woodkits as well as its dinosaur, sea life and insect models. But the museum store's biggest Safari seller is a sort of Swiss Army knife for young backyard adventurers: a pocket-sized gadget that can be used as binoculars, a magnifying glass, compass and a magnifying mirror.

Its varied product line is quite a change from the early days. Safari Limited was founded in 1979 by Bernard Rubel, the company's president.

A retired printer, Rubel was visiting a zoo in Germany when he found a card game in the gift shop based on endangered animals. Rubel brought the card game back to the United States, translated it to English and sent out flyers advertising his own version to American museums.

"He got an order for 12 of the card games, then 15, then 500, then an order for 5,000," said Godbee. "He thought it was a mistake."

It wasn't. It soon became a full-time job.

By 1984 Safari outgrew Rubel's condo and had seven full-time employees. Most of the manufacturing is done by contract in China and Taiwan. The design and distribution work is now done by 100 employees at Safari's 110,000-square-foot headquarters in a north Miami industrial park. Rubel's 48-year-old son, Doug, is the co-owner who runs the place on a day-to-day basis.

While most of Safari's business today comes from animal replicas, the company also sells educational games, woodkits, puzzles, posters and paint kits. Safari products are exported to more than 40 countries, accounting for about 10 percent of the company's business last year.

With more than 100 dinosaur-related products already on the market, Safari is hoping Hollywood will again pump up interest in dinos this summer.

The Lost World, Steven Spielberg's sequel to Jurassic Park, opens Memorial Day, backed by another promotional hypefest for ancient creatures the general public never heard of.

But the toy market is notoriously fickle. A glut of nature and science-related stores in malls has brought about a wave of store closings some experts think signals a trend that peaked.

The Imaginarium is in Chapter 11. Long-suffering What a World!, which carries Safari products, is being acquired by Natural Wonders, which dropped the line. Natural Wonders executives are fighting their own trend of decreasing sales by trying to make their stores more fun and less serious looking than a library.

Meanwhile, the coming summer movie schedule is packed with competing films laden with heavily promoted merchandising tie-ins _ Batman and Robin, Hercules and Star Wars to name a few _ that will vie with The Lost World for attention.

Safari hopes Spielberg's sequel makes its new Carnotaurus a star equal to Jurassic Park's fierce Velociraptor. Safari also is unveiling two other new creatures: Saltasaurus, a recent discovery from Argentina, and the Kronosaurus, a massive dolphin lookalike that was the biggest known dinosaur to live in the water.