Dinosaur Kingdom II
Natural Bridge, Virginia
Everyone loves dinosaurs. It's why roadside statues of them are so popular, and why many dinosaur theme parks thrive. But creating a new kind of dinosaur park demands attention to our other shared loves -- such as time travel, robots, and monsters. That's why America needed Dinosaur Kingdom II, built by Mark Cline, "Barnum of the Blue Ridge" (who also brought Foamhenge to an unsuspecting world).
DK2 is full of dinosaurs, of course, but it's also populated with Yankee soldiers from the Civil War, a mad scientist, a time machine, a lasso-flinging Abraham Lincoln, lumpy green "Mr. Slime" monsters, a lost buried treasure, and Confederate general Stonewall Jackson with a 15-foot-long robotic arm.
"You have to kind of work for some of the stuff here," said Mark, aware that visitors might be baffled by his non-traditional dinosaur park displays. "I'm telling a story!"
The story is this: a mad scientist travels back in time to the Civil War. He gives Stonewall Jackson the robot arm -- after Stonewall's real arm had been shot off (true) and he faked his own death (maybe not true) -- to dig 15 feet underground to find The Beale Treasure, a real treasure that's supposedly buried at that depth somewhere near Natural Bridge. The scientist needs the gold to fuel his time machine, but Stonewall -- loyal to the Lost Cause -- may just keep the gold to bankroll the Confederacy.
Meanwhile, cannon blasts from invading Yankees have awakened hibernating dinosaurs in nearby Natural Bridge Caverns ("Deepest Caverns on the East Coast," according to its billboard just down the highway). The dinosaurs are attacking Stonewall, so the mad scientist sends an army of Mr. Slimes to help turn the prehistoric beasts against the Yanks, who already have their hands full trying to convert the creatures into Weapons of Mass Destruction against the South.
"I try to explain it on a few signs," said Mark, "but I don't know how many people read signs any more."
Visitors enter Dinosaur Kingdom II through an old railway car being attacked by a T-rex, then follow a looping outdoor path past the fiberglass dinosaur displays, all designed and built by Mark. Mostly what they see are Yankees suffering indignities from the horns, claws, and teeth of their prehistoric tormentors. "This attraction is like a throwback in time, in more ways than one," said Mark, who proudly stands next to the Yanks' screaming faces to show us how they were modeled from his own.
As for Abe Lincoln, Mark said that the President is here because he was using a quiet cabin in the woods to write the Gettysburg Address -- until most of it was stolen by a flying dinosaur. "That's why the final version was so short."
Like any good media franchise, Dinosaur Kingdom II is an expansion in scope and scale from an earlier Mark Cline project, Dinosaur Kingdom, which closed in 2012 when its neighboring Haunted Monster Museum burned down. Mark salvaged the most successful ideas from both attractions, added new characters and several layers of goofy complexity, and fused them into DK2, which opened in 2016. "I thought, man, there's so much more I could do with this," said Mark. "This place gives me the space and the landscapes to really make it work."
The attraction occupies a former tourist court with cabins -- real vintage roadside -- and Mark said that he plans to use every building and all 15 acres of property to flesh out his vision. It's clearly a labor of love, showcasing some of Mark's favorite themes: prehistoric beasts, comic book monsters, the War Between the States, and hokey Hollywood sci-fi. The possibilities for prequels, sequels, and spin-offs are limited only by by Mark's time and the cost of fiberglass.
"I don't drink, I don't spend any money on dope or the lottery," said Mark. "This is what keeps me happy. And when I'm happy, I'm productive."
We asked Mark for an example of a possible future display at Dinosaur Kingdom II. He pointed to one of the paths in the woods and said he might build a love shack for Dinosaur People at the end of it, where visitors could see proof that "the local hillbillies got romantic with some of the dinosaurs."
"This is about dinosaurs, and we've all heard about extinction," Mark said. "So I want this place to keep evolving."