Plant City, Florida
We remember this place, or at least this piece of real estate, when it was Gator Jungle, a combination gator farm/swamp walk whose big draw was "Old King," a grizzled crocodilian. Since 1998, however, it has been Dinosaur World, "The World's Largest Dinosaur Park" and a significant addition to the fraternity of Florida attractions.
Dinosaur parks in general offer a surprising range of presentation, given the politics, knowledge, and dinosaur-sculpting skills of their creators. Some have an old-school charm, some are eerily atmospheric, some just have other agendas.
Dinosaur World emphasizes the dinosaurs -- which is perhaps as it should be -- and its size. Dinosaur World displays more dinosaurs than any other -- over 150 spread across 12 acres, many of impressive scale and workmanship. No other dino park that we know of can afford to have a full-size Ultrasaurus and two T-rexes out by the interstate, just as eye-catching billboards. This is even more impressive when you learn -- and as the park's owners freely admit -- that there were never any dinosaurs in Florida.
Dinosaur World is also a humbling lesson in globalization. This impressive attraction is not the work of an American, but of a Swedish businessman, Christer Svensson, who made his mark making dinosaurs in Australia and Japan, consulted with a similar park in Germany before building this one, and has his dinosaurs manufactured in Sweden before shipping them over here. Svensson has since moved to America, and his family runs Dinosaur World, but still. The days when the USA was synonymous with horrifying giant reptiles are over.
The park features a broad cast of primordial characters in often bright colors, arranged along wide, paved walkways. Explanatory plaques set in stone point out creatures familiar to any dinosaur novice -- the Stegosaurus, the Triceratops, the T-rex -- as well as a Lost World of obscure, oddball saurians: the chickenesque Avimimus, the oriental Tsintaosaurus, the spiky-domed Pachycephalosaurus, "largest of all the dinosaurs which some scientists guess may have butted heads." Dinosaur World insists that all of its creatures reflect "the latest scientific knowledge" and that "the dinosaurs are so believable that some visitors claim to see them moving!"
Part of that effect is attributable to Dinosaur World being built in Gator Jungle's former swamp. It's one of the few dino parks that can actually pull off the "prehistoric rain forest" setting, with dinosaurs looming from the trees around every turn. This gives a good approximation of dinosaur-era Earth, particularly on a sweaty summer afternoon.
In the years since its opening, Dinosaur World has added a shaded "fossil dig" for kids, a Dinosaur Movie Cave, a tiny museum, and a "How We Make Dinosaurs" exhibit. The Svenssons have done so well that in 2003 they opened a smaller sister park, also named Dinosaur World, in Cave City, Kentucky.
Despite its claims of scientific veracity, Dinosaur World is careful not to sound that note too loudly. Its Teacher's Guide insists that "much of what is said about dinosaurs is theory and interpretation," so as not to offend those who believe in what the Guide calls "Creation Science."
This is probably a fiscally prudent course, and the busloads of Christian School kids in the park on the day that we visited seem to indicate its effectiveness. The anti-evolutionists hold no grudges here, against the dinosaurs or the Swedes.