In Jurassic Park, scientists used DNA extracted from mosquitoes to bring the dinosaurs back to life. While that may be pure science fiction, there is a Jurassic park where, with just a little imagination, prehistoric creatures come to life.
The Dinosaur Land park in White Post, Va., truly is a journey into the land before time. Not only does the park feature large-scale and life-size replicas of dinosaurs, cavemen and other prehistoric and out-of-this-world creatures scattered about a 2-acre "primordial" forest, but it also remains largely unchanged since it opened 40 years ago - including the large "Dinosaur Land" letters at the entrance of the park that look strikingly similar to the sign outside a park in Anaheim, Calif., that also begins with "D" and ends with "land."
Dinosaur Land was built by Joseph Geraci, who was inspired to create the park after a trip to Florida one winter. Geraci noticed all of the fiberglass dinosaurs outside of gift shops and putt-putt golf courses and thought that bringing dinosaurs back to Virginia would be the perfect way to entice more tourists to his gift shop in the Shenandoah Valley. Geraci started with five dinosaurs, and his collection grew every year. Today there are 49 exhibits in the park.
Geraci died in 1987, but three of his daughters continue to run the business. Geraci's youngest daughter, Joann Leight, 65, manages most of the day-to-day operations. To this day, she marvels at what her father created in what was once a forest near a highway intersection. "Dad was one of those people who could do anything. He sold cars, built houses, had a winery and then built his gift shop," she says.
Since taking over Dinosaur Land, Leight and her sisters have added 17 figures to the park, including seven last year. The newer dinosaurs, which are designed by Lexington, Va., artist Mark Cline, are very different from the ones Geraci started with, Leight said. Most noticeably, the newer dinosaurs are scientifically accurate.
"Children come in here all the time and tell us the [older] Tyrannosaurus rex has the incorrect number of toes," Leight says. (For the record, the T. rex had two fingers on each hand, and four toes on its feet. The fourth toe was very tiny.)
"The original dinosaurs were built like statues," Leight says. In contrast, Cline's newer creations appear to be frozen in motion, interacting with the environment. A stroll through Dinosaur Land reveals a gentle brontosaurus munching on leaves; a triceratops gouging its prey; a pteranodon high in the treetops looking like he is about ready to scoop you up for a snack; and a fierce battle, complete with blood and guts, raging between the meat-eating Tyrannosaurus rex and the plant-eating titanosaurus.
Although the place is called Dinosaur Land, there are some nondinosaur items on display that don't quite seem to belong with the rest of the exhibits. These include a giant octopus, a 60-foot-long shark, a 14-foot praying mantis that looks like it came from some bad 1950s horror movie, a cobra and a King Kong statue that has a giant paw visitors can get their picture taken inside.
"Those were dad's whims," Leight says fondly. The previous dinosaur supplier created them and never found a buyer, so Geraci bought them. Leight remembers that it took three tractor trailers to haul King Kong to the park. "Our concentration now is on the dinosaurs," Leight says. "Each one has an educational sign describing the exhibit."
As with many small, older, privately owned parks, some Dinosaur Land exhibits have seen better days. "The fingers and the teeth are the first to go," Leight says. Over the years, the park has also been the victim of some creative vandals. King Kong's biplane has had to be replaced numerous times, Leight says, and the woolly mammoth's trunk was once stolen and made its way to a veterinarian's mailbox.
Perhaps the funniest theft involved the cave man exhibit, Leight says. Although the cave man is rooted in cement, vandals have managed to steal him on three occasions. One time he was thrown into the Shenandoah River. Leight still has the photo of the cave man posing with the police officer who responded to a call about a body floating in the river.
While several of the original dinosaurs were animated, like the woolly mammoth whose ears flapped and trunk moved, all of the creatures at Dinosaur Land are now still. Yet even without all of the fancy bells and whistles of newer and more sophisticated exhibits one might find at the Maryland Science Center or the Smithsonian Institution, the park still seems to entrance young and old visitors.
For the kids, it's the appeal of the dinosaurs and having the chance to get up close and personal with them outdoors, Leight says. For adults, it's a sense of nostalgia. "We get so many adults that came here as children and then come back with their children," she says. It's funny, she remarked: "They always say that they don't remember the trees ever being so big."
Dinosaur Land is at 3848 Stonewall Jackson Highway, White Post, Va. It's open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the last group admitted at 4 p.m. The park closes Jan. 1 and typically reopens during the last weekend of February. Admission is free for children younger than 2; $4 for ages 2-10; and $5 for ages 11 and older. Discounts are available for large groups. Call 540-869-2222 or visit www. dinosaurland.com.
Take Interstate 70 West toward Frederick. Merge onto U.S. 340 West via Exit 52 toward Charles Town/Leesburg. Merge onto U.S. 340 South toward Berryville/Leesburg. Turn left onto U.S. 340 S/US-522 S/Stonewall Jackson Highway. End at 3848 Stonewall Jackson Highway.