Monday, June 30, 2008
A dinosaur tale for the whole family in Natural Bridge
Jeanna Duerscherl | The Roanoke Times
Justin Fitzgerald, tour guide for Professor Cline's Monster Musuem, begins the tour by telling all the guests to lean in close.
Jerry Elkins carries his 8-month-old daughter Cordelia as his 4-year-old daughter Harper and wife, Angie, follow him through Dinosaur Kingdom. The family, from Maryland, also visited Mark Cline's Foamhenge attraction and a wax museum in the Natural Bridge area.
Harper Elkins, 4, crawls out of a dinosaur eggshell, as her mother, Angie Elkins, walks behind her during their visit to Professor Cline's Dinosaur Kingdom. The park depicts a Civil War battle between soldiers and dinosaurs.
NATURAL BRIDGE -- The dinosaurs sound hungry.
They roar and growl as we tread along the gravel footpath. A fence separates us from the bellows in the woods. We're too shielded to see anything, but in the open enough for the shrieks and snarls to conjure images of big creatures with big claws and big teeth.
We pass fence-mounted fossils and museum-style explainer signs and hear ominous music. For anyone who's ever walked through the Jurassic Park section of Orlando's Islands of Adventure, it's slightly reminiscent.
That feeling ends right about the time we spot our first dino -- what appears to be a vicious velociraptor in a field.
Enter the first of many anachronisms. The dino is playing nicely with fellow fiberglass cows and deer.
"And inexplicably," notes Jerry Elkins, who is visiting Natural Bridge's Dinosaur Kingdom with his family. "There's a monkey with a purple hat."
High above where Elkins' two daughters take shelter in hatched dinosaur eggs, hangs out-of-place creature No. 2: A stuffed gorilla wearing a cowboy hat.
He's looking angrily at a caveman below, who is shaking a stick. We conclude Donkey Kong has snatched the caveman's pants, which are draped over the gorilla's fuzzy arm.
In reality, we learn later from park creator Mark Cline, the pantsless one is not a caveman. Rather, he's a Union Army solider just awoken from his tent.
"It's all Union and dinosaurs," Cline explains. "No cavemen."
Thanks, Mark. That clears up everything.
The explanation seems almost natural coming from Cline, a 47-year-old from Waynesboro who's spent the past 25 years crafting fiberglass dinos for museums and parks from Florida to Branson, Mo.
The Dinosaur Kingdom is just one of a series of odd tourist stops on this rural stretch of U.S. 11 -- featuring Mother Nature-crafted Natural Bridge and a Styrofoam replica of Stonehenge (aptly named Foamhenge, also created by Cline.)
Opened in 2005, the dino park's story takes place in 1863, when a family of paleontologists on a fossil-excavating mission discover a hidden valley filled with living dinosaurs. Meanwhile, the Union Army learns about the big lizards and attempts to round up the dinos to use as weapons of mass destruction against the South.
There's no subliminal messages here, Cline explains. Every story needs a good guy and a villain. Because it's the South, the Yankees get the bad-guy title. No one from up North, Cline adds, has ever complained.
There are nearly 30 fiberglass dinos in the park, outnumbering those bad-intentioned Union guys. In fact, Cline says his original idea was creating a ride-through Civil War park. But the more he researched, the more expensive the idea became.
He wanted something cheaper and a way to incorporate his fascination with dinosaurs. The park's theme is based on the 1969 movie "The Valley of Gwangi" where cowboys find dinosaurs in Mexico.
The dino park neighbors Professor Cline's Haunted Monster Museum, also created by Cline. It's a blood-and-guts-free haunted house full of dark mazes, thumps and bumps. It's unique in that visitors can watch a video of their tour afterward -- with the option of purchasing the DVD.
"It's like Disney on speed," Cline says.
For the Elkins family, on vacation from Maryland, the dino park came on a day where they also visited Foamhenge and the wax museum.
"We kind of excel at finding weird places," Jerry Elkins explained.
But to keep the place slightly less weird, Cline has a few changes in mind.
He plans to add a Yankee flag to the soldier's tent, hopefully clearing the caveman confusion.