The Absurdist Theme Park Where Confederates Win and Dinosaurs Roam
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Not your daddy’s dinosaur park.
Drive down I-81 from the nation’s capital, take the exit for Natural Bridge, make a few zigzags and you might think you’ve found another of those all-too-common stodgy memorials to the Civil War. Until you notice the dinosaurs. That’s right, Toto — we aren’t in Colonial Williamsburg anymore.
Welcome to the manic vision of Mark Cline, who combines Jurassic Park and Gettysburg to form Dinosaur Kingdom II. It’s one of America’s most bizarre, and most loving, odes to roadside tourism, the collection of beloved oddities that propagated highways during the ’60s and ’70s but has declined since. “People like me who build these things are helping to keep these things alive,” says Cline. Mid-Atlantic residents are well-versed in his other creations, from Dinosaur Kingdom I, which burned down in 2012, to Foamhenge, a life-size replica of Stonehenge that has a 4.5-star rating on Yelp and is currently being relocated to northern Virginia. “This is not your father’s dinosaur park,” Cline says. “Not everything is spelled out for you.”
Tickets are $10 a pop for teenagers and adults, $6 for dino-treats … er, children.
That’s true. Signs are scant, and while you start off in a train cart, the experience is decidedly more free-form once you’re dumped off in an abandoned mining village — the site of a terrible tragedy, as you’ll soon find out. Here, the Yankees have conscripted dinosaurs against the Confederates. And yes, the Northerners win the war. But they lose this particular battle, even with T. rexes on their side — how embarrassing! If history is indeed always written by the victors, then the dino disaster of 1864 has conveniently been scrubbed from social studies books. “I’m telling the true story,” Cline says.
Thus starts a rollicking acid trip into selective memory, which wouldn’t be complete without Abraham Lincoln fending off a pteranodon with the Gettysburg Address, and a somehow-still-living Stonewall Jackson (history buffs will recall he passed in ’63) battling a spinosaurus with a mechanical arm. There are more than 30 sculptures in all, and tickets are $10 a pop for teenagers and adults, $6 for dino-treats … er, children. Patty Williams, director of marketing at the Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism office, says the local industry has “certainly benefited” from the absurdist vision of Cline, although “more ‘accurate’ accounts” of war-time Virginia can be found at the nearby Memorial Cemetery and the Virginia Military Institute Museum and via Lexington Carriage Company tours.
Sure, attendance is down, and the launch of Dinosaur Kingdom II this July could have gone more smoothly — it was delayed a month because of massive rainstorms — but that won’t dampen Cline. He’s already planning his pet project’s future, including a section where hillbillies have crossbred with their dinosaur counterparts, and a pièce de résistance, which he says no dinosaur park in the world has ever done. “You’ll be able to feed the dinosaurs,” Cline boasts. When asked how, exactly, he declines to answer.