I'm fascinated by local attractions. Orlando is, of course, home to Disney World and Universal Studios and their affiliated parks -- but it's the little stuff that really drags me in.
Case in point: Dinosaur World.
Dinosaur World has been in operation since 1998. In the Florida attractions game, that's actually pretty respectable. They are located between Orlando and Tampa in Plant City, Florida -- and there are two other parks as well, in Kentucky and Texas.
There's a club in Tampa that I used to go to with some frequency, and on every drive over, my friends would laugh at the huge fiberglass dinosaur on the side of the road, advertising Dinosaur World. I laughed, too -- but I am so into weird roadside attractions. My heart is easily won by things that lack corporate production polish.
It's a weakness. I acknowledge that.
When tickets for Dinosaur World came up as a Groupon, I might have actually disturbed my co-workers with my audible expression of glee. It was the perfect excuse to drag myself out to Plant City, which is just far enough away to be inconvenient if you haven't planned for the trip.
Now, there's some creationist scandal surrounding Dinosaur World. They make a lot of noise about their dinosaurs being scientifically accurate (which, uh, is a wildly inaccurate claim anyway) but they've been friendly with creationist tour groups and the like. I'll state right up front: I saw no evidence of creationist philosophy in the park itself.
I've recently been really frustrated by the lack of places to just, like, walk around without being marketed to. I know our world runs on consumerism, but it's frustrating that, one the sun goes down, there's really nowhere to go that isn't a retail space of some variety. It's a concern during the day, too - Florida summers are hot enough that just taking a walk can actually be a pretty unpleasant prospect at 2 in the afternoon.
Parks like Dinosaur World, which are laid out with intersecting walking paths, soothe a little bit of that need for me. It's not an evening venue, so it isn't perfect. But when the weather is nice, you can wind your way around for a solid couple of hours without having to evaluate whether or not you want to buy something.
That comes later, in the gift shop.
But, seriously. Dinosaur World is leashed-pet friendly, with water stations scattered around so your pet can hydrate. It's on natural swamp and marsh land, so the environment is really interesting. That already puts it leaps and bounds ahead of my neighborhood. (Also, there are no cars gunning it down the road. That's a big deal too.)
And there are the dinosaurs.
I don't know about you, but I don't go to an attraction like Dinosaur World for the scientific accuracy. I go for the cheesy fun of it. I go because there are things like the Carnivore Boardwalk. (Enter if you dare!)
If you're looking for science, go to a museum of science and technology. I promise you'll be much happier (MOSI in Tampa is aces). If you're looking for fiberglass dinosaurs and photo opportunities, well, I think that's where roadside attractions like this one really excel.
While we were there, we kept crossing paths with a group of people who had obviously decided there was nothing better to do than go look at dinosaurs while drunk. The tower of beer cans in the parking lot had forewarned us.
The drunks wore funny hats and hooted at the statues. They were mostly funny.
There were a lot of kids, which wasn't a surprise. There were a lot of people who seemed familiar with the park -- not surprising, because an annual pass is only about 25 bucks. If I lived closer, I totally admit it, I think I'd be at Dinosaur World on a pretty regular basis. There were a lot of dogs on leashes, too.
All told, I think I spent two hours walking the paths at Dinosaur World. I took my actual camera -- usually I just my cell phone -- and took nearly 200 pictures. There's a lot of shots of Spanish moss. But mostly the camera was an excuse to take my time, to wander around and stick my nose in where it might be considered silly to otherwise look.
Sure, I could probably spend that long on a hiking trail somewhere. But there aren't any dinosaurs on the hiking trails around here. Just saying.
Half of the pleasure of places like Dinosaur World are how unabashedly, genuinely corny they are. It's the places where this good humor doesn't get carried all the way through that some of the gleam comes off -- it's in the spots where Dinosaur World tries to actually be educational.
Sure, there's a sand pit where kids can play and "discover" dinosaur bones. Those are great. But there are some actual fossils in a little "cave" building that brings the whole place crashing down from fun to taking itself too seriously. I'm not opposed to educational opportunities -- I just don't think every educational opportunity has to be so forced.
Walking around Dinosaur World is also a great way to just get out and move. There's so much lament about how sedentary Americans are -- but the gym isn't really the answer to that. And neither is "just go play outside" -- interesting spaces like this, that are accessible to people of varying abilities and fitness levels, seem actually pretty vital to me.
I bought an ammonite necklace in the gift shop. And a great big bottle of water -- it got a little warm that day, after all. In hindsight, though, I wish I had sprung for that annual pass after all.