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Dinosaur Land

Clarke Co., Virginia (December 2007)

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A Dinosaur Encounter

Dinosaur Land near Winchester Virginia

In the days before Interstate highways, before large corporate theme parks and fast food restaurants, little mom-and-pop attractions provided the traveling public with a few moments of amusement and perhaps a brief rest as they traveled through rural America on rolling, winding two-lane asphalt. Kids hung their heads by the windows of the family's Hudson or Nash, pleading for a breeze during those stifling Southern summers before air conditioning, all the while asking, "Are we there yet?" Just when their parents could stand it no longer, with sweat dripping, heat building and complaints flashing to a boiling point, something odd would appear on the horizon. For a few bucks the family took a break from the monotony of cross-country travel. A small-town entrepreneur with big dreams, a catchy sign and rudimentary carpentry skills just snagged another willing customer.

Most of these roadside attractions went the way of the dinosaurs. A few, however, managed to survive into the modern world including one in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Virginia. In this instance dinosaurs have been its salvation. Literally, this is DinosaurLand.

Giant Shark

Inside the Mouth of a Megalodon

Our two little guys loved dinosaurs so we stopped at this roadside attraction while in the general area during our winter holidays. DinosaurLand remained open through the end of December before taking a two-month hiatus so we arrived right before the end of their season. Several people milled about the three-room gift shop but we were the only ones heading outdoors to the adjacent outdoor dinosaur park during the entire hour we visited. It was a bit chilly, but the sun shone brightly and temperatures remained above freezing so it felt comfortable. As we entered the park we approached a fiberglass Megalodon, an ancient 50 foot shark with a doorway cut through the side of its head. We could get inside its mouth without having to cross a threshold of teeth. That fish would have swallowed us whole without even noticing us back in ancient times.


An Oviraptor Amid a Field of Dinosaurs

The park itself was compact and easily walkable, with interlaced gravel paths set among a grove of pine and oak. Dinosaur sculptures appeared in close proximity to each other, with hand-lettered signs identifying each creature. Here the guys stood near an Oviraptor from the late Cretaceous Period, a dinosaur believed to subsist on the eggs of other dinosaurs.

The trees probably provided excellent shade during the summer, and with the fallen leaves of winter the sunlight streamed through empty branches to warm the ground. This contrasted rather drastically with the brochure we purchased at the gift shop that showed an open field spotted with young saplings, a throwback to earlier times. You would do well to seek out a copy of the brochure and at fifty cents it's a bargain. The girls in their late 1960's miniskirts pictured amid giant reptiles provided great amusement, as did the photo of a stereotypical hairy, scary caveman missing only a club over his shoulder and a cavewoman dragged along by the hair. We saw no sign of him at the park so I guess he's just a little over the top even for a roadside attraction today, which is a shame since that's the kind of sight that make these places so endearing. But get the brochure and take a trip back about 40 years to the days when bad fashion ruled the dinosaur realm!


Time for a Light Snack

It's not all cuddles and cuteness along the trailside. A couple of exhibits depicted epic battles won and lost. Our little guy seemed quite willing to seek a personal view of this Megalosaurus chomping on a hapless sauropod lying in the meadow. There's nothing quite like a little blood and guts to add some excitement to otherwise stoic creatures frozen in place.

We were glad we brought the kids to DinosaurLand at their present ages. It seems to me there are two sets of people who would enjoy this attraction the most: early elementary school children and younger who are full of natural wonder and curiosity; and adults that happen to be unapologetic aficionados of nostalgia and kitsch. I fear DinosaurLand would have induced spasms of eye-rolling if the kids had been much older. In our place and in our time though, our older son in particular thought this was the best day in his life.


Horns Aplenty

We wandered to every back corner of the park. Twice. No dinosaur left behind. Some creatures like this ceratopsian, a Styracosaurus specifically, stood at eye level. Others such as the Brachiosaurus in the background towered above us. Big dinosaurs, little dinosaurs, flying, swimming, walking and running dinosaurs; they all found a home here. Our guys wanted to pose alongside every single one of them.

King Kong

Why the Monkey?

And then there was King Kong. I'm not entirely sure how King Kong fit into the overall dinosaurs premise even though he battled one in his classic movie, but it's better to ignore such contradictions and simply enjoy the moment while touring a roadside attraction. So we dutifully completed the pilgrimage to his outstretched palm as countless others have done before us over the last half century, and posed for the obligatory photo. Dusty shoeboxes around the country doubtlessly hold variations on this identical scene tucked amid the stacks of ephemeral memories of traveling tourists. Kong didn't seem to mind though, and anyway he had a little airplane in his other hand to keep him busy.