Ah, roadside attractions… at one time in our national childhood, salvation for parents traveling cross country with their kids, looking desperately for a bathroom break and a pause from choruses of “Are we there yet?” Oases of fun for children stuck all day long in the rear storage hatch of their parents’ station wagon, tired of reading the same comic books over and over again.
I grew up in South Florida at pretty much the end of the Golden Age of roadside attractions, just before the mega theme parks closed so many of them down by drawing away their customers (I was born in 1964, and Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971). I still remember Planet Ocean, Stars Hall of Fame Wax Museum, the Fun Fair, the Miami Serpentarium, the Mystery Fun House, Ocean World, Parrot Jungle (now Jungle Island), and Monkey Jungle (still going strong!).
I loved dinosaurs as a kid. The only life-sized dinosaur statue anywhere near me was a scrawny Tyrannosaurus mounted in front of the parking lot of a furniture store located, I believe, in South Miami, placed there to make parents with kids pull over and take a look (and then maybe wander into the furniture store). The Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium had statues of a giant ground sloth and a sabretoothed tiger, but those were prehistoric mammals, not dinosaurs. Had I known back then that a place such as Dinosaur Land existed, I’m sure I would’ve bugged the dickens out of my mom and dad until they agreed to take me to White Post in rural northwestern Virginia, between Winchester and Front Royal (maybe combining that with a visit to relatives in Charleston, West Virginia, not too far away).
Dinosaur Land was built the same year I was born. So it’s about 47 years old. The place doesn’t advertise much; I’ve driven the western stretch of I-66 a dozen times or more and never seen a billboard hawking the place, which is located only seven miles north of the highway, up Route 340/522 North. I stumbled upon a description of the place when I was looking online for weekend activities for my three boys. That was back at the height of the summer. I decided I’d wait for a perfect autumn day and then take my sons. The perfect day arrived this past Sunday, crisp and sunny. Off we went.
Dinosaur Land is completely charming. Any Baby Boomer (I came at the tail end of the boom) will be plunged into nostalgia by a visit. You enter the attraction through the gift shop (of course). This isn’t as bad as it sounds, because the gift shop is part of the charm of the place, with a tremendous variety of knick-nacks and tchotches for sale at all price ranges, from leather moccasins to dinosaur masks. As a parent, I was very pleased to find I didn’t have to spend a minimum of five bucks per kid on souvenirs; I could’ve easily spent a bundle (had I heeded my boys’ pleadings), but the shop also sold a huge assortment of rubber insects and small dinosaur figurines from 75 cents to $2.95, so I was able to redirect my childrens’ cravings to more reasonably priced items. Admission to the Prehistoric Forest is also very reasonable at $5 for adults and $4 for children (children two and under enter for free).
Once you exit the gift shop, you walk through a “cavern” to get to the Prehistoric Forest. The approximately three acre park contains 37 creature statues (not just dinosaurs), all either life-sized or larger than life-sized (I’ll explain that in an upcoming post). When the park opened in 1964, it had 26 statues. Since then, the owners have added several dinosaur battles and beefed up their stock of the trendy carnivores. Attached to the multi-room gift shop is a modest ranch house where the original owners once lived. They looked out their windows at Tyrannosaurus, a gigantic praying mantis right out of the 1957 monster movie The Deadly Mantis, and a Mylodon, or giant ground sloth. I wonder if they had kids.
The dinosaurs are definitely old-school (except for the most recent additions), modeled upon the classic dinosaur murals that line the walls of the New York Museum of Natural History. Since then, paleontologists have completely revised their theories of how dinosaurs moved and lived, and many dinosaur skeletons in major natural history museums have been remounted to reflect the current view of dinosaurs as swift, active animals, possibly warm-blooded, very different from modern reptiles, more like modern birds. The Dinosaur Land dinosaurs, however, would all be very much at home in the Ray Harryhausen dino epics of the 1950s and 1960s.
Stegosaurus, the armored dinosaur which was my favorite when I was a boy, gets lots of love at Dinosaur Land. There are three of them, one an old-fashioned green gentleman and the other two a more updated mother Stego and baby. I was very pleased to see all of them.
More photos to come! More dinos and other weird, fantastical creatures! A mystery dinosaur! The giant octopus from King Kong vs. Godzilla! And Kong himself!