Monday, April 24, 2006
NATURAL BRIDGE, Va. Mark Cline says his greatest artistic triumph is Foamhenge, a life-size reproduction of Stonehenge that he carved out of Styrofoam and erected in a field here. But future art critics might conclude that Cline's greatest achievement is Escape From Dinosaur Kingdom, a roadside attraction that incorporates two classic tourist-trap themes (dinosaurs and the Civil War) in a uniquely Virginian way -- by having the dinosaurs attack Yankee soldiers.
Right now, Cline, 45, is strolling into Dinosaur Kingdom, wearing his ever-present white fedora because, he explains, "the white hat suggests the hero."
There's nobody around because it's a Monday and the Kingdom doesn't open on weekdays until after Memorial Day. Cline flips a switch, turning on the sound effects, which consist of operatic music and dinosaur growls.
"This is called creating the ambiance," he says. "You set the stage. You hear the screams. You get the feel."
At the Kingdom's entrance, a sign explains the premise: It's 1863 and Union soldiers have discovered a hidden valley filled with dinosaurs. Now the Yankees plan to "use the dinos as weapons of mass destruction against the South."
Cline enters the Kingdom and walks past a fiberglass raptor sitting in an old wagon, past a fiberglass cow surrounded by eight hungry-looking fiberglass dinosaurs, past a fiberglass little girl fighting off a dinosaur who has attacked her treehouse. Then he arrives at the Kingdom's pièce de résistance -- a life-size Yankee cavalryman on a horse trying to lasso a T-rex that's clutching a Yankee soldier in its fearsome jaws.
It's amazing! It's brilliant! It's hilarious!
It's also a real crowd-pleaser. "The Southern people like it," Cline says, "and the Northern people have a sense of humor."
Next year, Cline adds, he hopes to open a Civil War-themed dinosaur attraction in Gettysburg. Up there, he says, the Yankees won't be the bad guys.
"I'm thinking of doing Pickett's Charge using dinosaurs," he says.
"It's an alternate reality."
'When I Grow Up . . .'
One day when Cline was a kid, he was riding in his father's car near White Post, Va., when he spotted a billboard advertising Dinosaur Land. He begged his father to stop, but it was late and when they arrived, the place was closed. Mark peeked through the fence at the ersatz prehistoric lizards.