Dinosaurs – They're Back!

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Ever since public recognition of dinosaurs as real animals that once roamed the Earth first took hold in the mid-1800s, these wondrous creatures have captured the imagination of people around the world. This captivation rose to a whole new level with the release of the blockbuster motion picture “Jurassic Park” in 1993.

Now dinosaurs are again experiencing a surge in popularity, as amusement parks, zoos, and museums are using sophisticated animatronics, cutting-edge special effects, and advanced augmented reality to make the creatures more lifelike than ever before. Animatronics and special effects, once within reach of only the largest and wealthiest attraction companies, are now widely available to more modest facilities, helping spur the dinosaur boom.

Nothing better illustrates this current rush than a new theme park being built in the city of Daqing in the Heilongjiang Province of China. Called Jurassic Dream and slated to open in 2013, the entire 26-acre park is being themed around dinosaurs. Much of it will be located indoors because it is situated in a region of extreme weather, where temperatures can drop to -20°F.

The Thinkwell Group (www.thinkwell.staging.work) is designing the park, and Chief Creative Officer Craig Hanna speaks to why there is a continuing global interest with dinosaurs: “They have always been an evergreen subject matter. We have this fascination that our planet actually had these giant beasts roaming across it—this is not fiction; it really happened. They’re found in spots all over the world, and I think that’s a huge part of it also.”

Indeed, China has become a major center of paleontological discoveries of dinosaurs in recent years, and Jurassic Dream is located near one of the country’s hotbeds for these finds. It will house some 14 attractions, and Hanna notes custom designs were required, considering the subject matter.

“It has a lot of one-of-a-kind attractions that relate to dinosaurs, and that makes it different from a park of iron rides and off-the-shelf attractions,” he says. “We have ‘Time Trek’ that takes you into a ‘Soarin’-type ride system, and a walkthrough attraction where live actors interact with dinosaurs, and they respond. It’s not just a display of animatronic dinosaurs—you feel the dinosaurs are really alive, and they react to what’s happening around the guests.”

This latter attraction, called “Dinosaur Encounter,” will finish with a flurry as guests are “attacked” by raptors and a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a volcanic setting.

Big Dinos, Driven by the Smallest Guests

In the spirit of the movie “Jurassic Park,” many teenagers and adults certainly enjoy such menacing live action. But what about little kids? Scaring the pants off the youngest ones may not be the best approach to take if they are the driving force behind your attendance, as is the case with the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro (www.nczoo.org).

The zoo debuted a new attraction in 2012 called “Dinosaurs,” comprising 15 full-size animatronic creatures provided by Billings Productions. The upcharge attraction has been a resounding success, with the zoo selling well more than 100,000 tickets and experiencing the second-largest attendance day in its history shortly after the exhibit opened. Due to this success, the zoo announced “Dinosaurs” will be open a month longer than previously planned and has already decided to present a dinosaur exhibit in 2013 featuring different species.

Rod Hackney, the facility’s public relations manager, says the success of “Dinosaurs” can be traced to one guest group. “Kids—that’s it,” he says. “Dinosaurs are so important to them, and they know so much about them, and kids drive attendance to zoos—that’s the bottom line. We tried to make it attractive to all ages, but kids are driving it.”

He notes that while kids have always been enthralled with dinosaurs, he thinks today’s kids are more knowledgeable about them than previous generations, perhaps due to the propagation of TV programs about dinosaurs and the extensive reach of the Internet. “Their knowledge is amazing,” he observes. “They know so much specific information about each dinosaur—they’re little dinosaur experts!”

But zoos are where kids and adults alike go to see live animals, and even the most realistic animatronic animal is not alive. However, Hackney says animatronics have begun appearing in zoos in recent years with little complaint from guests. He points out that in the case of dinosaurs, there is no other way to see them because they have long been extinct, and though they are entertaining, he cautions against underestimating their educational appeal: “We point out that the triceratops looks a lot like a rhinoceros, really, and the success of ‘Dinosaurs’ has us looking to do the same thing with animals that are more recently extinct.”

Realism Is Not an Option

It would seem the increased knowledge among guests would place an onus on parks, zoos, and museums to present much more realistic and advanced dinosaur attractions. Hackney confirms this idea. “There’s no question the bar has been raised so much technologically,” he says. “The quality of these animals has to be the very best, and they must have all the bells and whistles—the roars and screams, the moving eyes, and the twisting limbs. In terms of attracting customers, it’s essential because static exhibits are just no longer attractive—this is the world of 4-D.”

Certainly, hokey plaster statues will not cut it in a time when attraction visitors are accustomed to smooth-motion animatronics, 3-D video, holography, and advanced special effects. This is a challenge for attraction fabricators like Dinosaurs Unearthed (www.dinosaursunearthed.com) of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.

The company has created numerous top-notch dinosaur attractions, including the “Dinosaurs Alive!” experiences at four Cedar Fair parks. “There are different times where dinosaurs are extraordinarily popular, and this seems to be one of those times,” says Daoping Bao, the company’s president and CEO. “Movement and sound bring the life-size, hand-carved dinosaur models alive. All of our models in the exhibitions are animatronic. That movement, how they interact with each other, the unique sound to each of the dinosaurs, and the ambient sound throughout the experience bring the stories of discovery and science to life.”

The first “Dinosaurs Alive!” attraction appeared at Kings Island (www.visitkingsisland.com) in Mason, Ohio, in 2011; the park says it is the largest animatronic dinosaur venue in the world, featuring more than 60 creatures. Don Helbig, the park’s public relations manager, agrees the dinosaurs themselves must appear lifelike to draw modern audiences, but he suggests the experiences must take it a step further. “Ours is interactive, where guests can control the movement of some of the dinosaurs,” he says. “Also, here and at the other [Cedar Fair] parks, there are storylines, where you’ll have, say, a flash-flood scene in a great outdoor setting to help tell those stories. It adds realism and authenticity.”

It is fun to ponder what the next leap will be in the realm of bringing dinosaurs to life. In August 2012, Australian billionaire Clive Palmer denied rampant rumors that he was planning to create a real Jurassic Park—a theme park featuring live, genetically cloned dinosaurs. Whether such a concept will ever be scientifically possible is debatable. But the media frenzy the rumors touched off does confirm one thing: The continued public infatuation with dinosaurs makes them fertile ground for attractions for years to come.

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