Natures Art Center – ” The Dinosaur Place”
profile and photos by Caryn B. Davis
Contrary to popular belief, dinosaurs are not extinct. They are alive and well, roaming free at the Dinosaur Place in Montville, CT. The Dinosaur Place is truly a wondrous experience where art, science, and nature collide as visitors come in direct contact with over twenty five life-sized dinosaurs.
Hellohile most of us have seen dinosaur skeletons in museums, it is still difficult to imagine how they really looked and to fathom their enormous size. But at the Dinosaur Place, guests embarking upon the well manicured, wooded walking paths are greeted by casts of these remarkable creatures, making it easier to picture what it must have been like when dinosaur herds inhabited the earth millions of years ago.
“The dinosaurs are built by La Reata Studios using concrete and steel. They start out as metal abstract shapes and then turn into an anatomically correct dinosaur,” says Marketing Director Corrina Ferguson, whose family owns and operates the Dinosaur Place.
Dinosaur Crossing, a mile long scenic nature trail, is filled with dinosaur re-creations and winds around Raptor Bay, a seven acre man-made lake complete with a nine ton volcano that erupts hourly. Some of the dinosaurs are more obvious, while others blend in seamlessly with their prehistoric surroundings amongst the flora and fauna. Half the fun is trying to find the dinosaurs hidden in the underbrush or deep within a grove of trees. Adults and children of all ages are delighted and surprised as they encounter these great beasts at every turn. The largest dinosaur in the collection is the Brachiosaurus, spanning 53 feet tall and 85 feet long. It is the tallest dinosaur to ever walk the earth – large enough for a car to drive underneath. The smallest dinosaur is the Compsognathus, which is about the size of a chicken, a scant one foot tall and a mere 2.5 feet long.
Each trail highlights dinosaurs from different periods and is named accordingly. The Connecticut Trail features dinosaurs from this region from both the Jurassic and Triassic, like the 9 foot Dilophosaurus and the Two-Ridged Reptile, or the Stegomus, “a primitive, plant-eating ancestor to the crocodile.” The Raptor Bay Trail has the Therizinosaurus (or Scythe Lizard), boasting 3-foot long claws, as well as many others with unusual spikes, teeth, or armor. The Mesozoic Trail focuses on dinosaurs from 225 to 266 million years ago, each varying in size and attributes – it includes a 40 foot long Stegosaurus and Velociraptor which could sprint up to 40 miles per hour (only twenty miles per hour slower than a cheetah).
Initially, the Dinosaur Place began as Nature’s Art, a small 2000 square foot gift shop selling fossils, minerals, and jewelry in Salem, CT. It opened in 1991 after Linda and Roger Phillips, Ferguson’s parents, had returned from a vacation in Arizona with a very unusual souvenir: an authentic four-foot shinbone from an Apatosaurus. They were so ecstatic about their newly acquired tibia that they began to wonder if other people would share their enthusiasm and interest. Ten years later, the Philips purchased the Montville property and began designing an “interactive science, nature and shopping adventure.” They began by increasing Nature’s Art to 24,000 square feet to include a Mineral Room, Fossil Gallery and a larger retail space; later they constructed the Dinosaur Place.
The Mineral Room has a huge collection of crystals and minerals gathered from all over the globe, including one of the tallest amethyst geodes in the country. They also have a tremendous selection of beads in nearly every color for those who like to make their own jewelry. The gift shop sells science and craft kits, educational toys, gem stone and crystal jewelry, Mexican pottery, Italian vases, gourmet food, dinosaur toys, stuffed animals, glassware and much more. There is also a café serving pizza, sandwiches, and delectable desserts that permeate the entire store with their sweet smelling scent.
While Nature’s Art is truly impressive, it is only one component of this magnificent place. Once again, while vacationing in Arizona, the Phillips stopped off at a McDonald’s which was known for being busiest in the state. People traveled far and wide just to view the dinosaur re-creation in the McDonald’s parking lot. By happenstance, La Reata Studios was just a short drive away and the Phillips were able to purchase a 14 foot tall juvenile T.Rex that they brought back to Connecticut. Thus, the idea to create the Dinosaur Place was born.
The 60 acre educational facility also includes an indoor activity center, a traditional playground, and a SPLASHPAD. With 800 gallons of water per minute spraying through brightly colored stainless steel columns, arches and loops, children can cool off in the summer heat in New England’s largest zero-depth aquatic playground. There are dinosaur-themed features that “range from ribcage waterfalls to dueling Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor-headed cannons.” This is 10,000 square feet of refreshing fun.
The indoor Activity Center offers children an entirely different interactive experience than the other parts of the park. Kids will love Jackpot Mine where they can dig for gems and crystals inside four different “underground” caves and get to keep what they find after identifying their treasures utilizing mineral charts. There is the Bone Zone which simulates a fossil quarry where children work with a team of “paleontologists” to uncover a dinosaur skeleton, and take home a collection of fossils. Then there is Thunder Creek, which is an indoor running stream that children use to pan for gold while learning about the California Gold Rush and the Forty-Niners. All participants take their fool’s gold home in a prospector’s pouch. Lastly, they offer a Geode Center where guests can select a geode and have it cut in half on the spot to reveal the natural beauty inside. They have geodes from Utah, Mexico, Brazil, and the Pacific Northwest that range in age from 7-100 million years old. Visitors will learn about the geode they picked, how old it is, and where it came from.
“All these indoor activities are a little unusual because you take a souvenir home with you. It’s amazing how much more interested the children are in learning about fossils, gold or stones because they found them instead of just purchasing them,” says Ferguson.
Recently, the Phillips redesigned their Mineral & Fossil Gallery to include fossils, minerals, and crystals from all over the world. They have everything from prehistoric snail fossils mined in the Sahara to fish fossils, a life-sized skeleton of a Triceratops, and the jawbone, foot, and skull of a European Cave Bear. They have an exact cast of a 65 million year old Tilosaur found in Kansas and one of the largest florescent mineral displays in New England.
“My family has always been interested in science, nature and the earth, but somehow it got focused on dinosaurs. It evolved over time – no pun intended – from being a tiny gift shop selling rocks, minerals and fossils to building life-sized dinosaurs and hosting field trips and school groups. It’s a nice mix of education and fun. Kids like it because they can play, climb, and get wet, and parents like it because they are learning about science and nature. Hopefully, people leave here having learned more about the world we live on because it’s such a fascinating place,” says Ferguson.
The Dinosaur Place and Nature’s Art are located at 1650 Route 85 in Montville and are open all year round. For directions, events and activities, or to host a birthday party, call 860-443-4367 or log onto www.thedinosaurplace.com.