Friday, August 15, 2008

Dinosaur World, Cave City, Kentucky

Cave City, Kentucky, about 90 miles south of Louisville, exists primarily to support the tourist industry surrounding Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the longest cave system in the world. It’s not the huge tourist trap one might expect, unlike, say, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri (a.k.a. “the redneck riviera”). And the one major tourist attraction we visited turned out to be a lucky find for the three-year-old crowd: Dinosaur World.

Funnily enough, my son independently came up with the idea that he wanted to visit a “dinosaur land” two months ago, and it was by sheer luck that we found one, having already planned a family reunion in Mammoth Cave. Dinosaur world boasts of 100 life-size, paleontologically correct dinosaur replicas, and it turned out to be educational but also fun. These prehistoric beasts are arranged among a beautiful forested parkland, which is pleasant enough in itself. Each species of dinosaurs – represented by two or more specimens – is accompanied by a paragraph or so of information about the animals’ diet (carnivore or herbivore), its social structure (living in groups or not), and its geographic extent. There were also some non-dinosaur species, such as pterodactyls, and even some woolly mammoths (which lived much later than dinosaurs and were contemporary with early humans).

Some of the dinosaurs were arranged in family groups – mother and father with two babies – in anthropomorphized, gender-specific roles. At one vista point in the park you can see a very large life-size diorama with half a dozen dinosaur species; the triceratops adults are arranged in a circle to protect their young from the threatening T. Rex, while brachiosaurs off in the distance tower above the trees.

My husband reminded me that the first such dinosaur park in modern history was built for the Crystal Palace after it was re-erected in Sydenham in 1854 as a permanent exhibition space. Outside the building, a display of life-size models of the "Extinct Animals" or "Antediluvian Creatures" were exhibited on islands arranged within a lake. England’s contribution to dinosaur park history is not surprising since early dinosaur discoveries were made in England. (Last summer we made a pilgrimage to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England, home of Mary Anning, the first female dinosaur hunter.)

The Dinosaur World in Cave City is a little pricey, but if you are travelling with a child who’s into dinosaurs it’s well worth the price. In addition to the life-size dinosaurs there’s a dinosaur movie, the obligatory playground, a large sandbox with “dinosaur bones” to be excavated, and even a “fossil dig” in which kids can unearth several dozen fossils and get to keep their favorites. These are real fossils – my son found tiny ammonites, shark teeth, crinoid stems, sea urchins, brachiopods, and other specimen types.

Dinosaur World provides the perfect antidote to the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which seeks to refute all scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution, and argues that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. As a Kentucky native I am frankly embarrassed that my state gave rise to such a ludicrous institution. Happily, Dinosaur World was full of young Southerners who took no issue with the idea that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago and that their existence can be proven by scientific evidence. That’s an institution worth supporting.

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