HALEY Macal and Thomas Sorensen's interest in paleobiology goes way back.
"Din-o-saur" was the first three-syllable word Haley ever articulated -- at age 1 1/2 -- and Thomas was able to enumerate the anatomic differences between, say, a plateosaurus and a psittacosaurus, long before he learned to tie his shoes. Both cite a series of animated films collectively known as "The Land Before Time" as the seminal influence on their precocious passion for prehistory.
Now, on a sunny Saturday in May, Haley, 3, and Thomas, 5, are on a pilgrimage to Dinosaur Land. Separately -- with Haley coming from nearby Winchester and Thomas coming all the way from New Haven, Conn. -- they have traveled to this crossroads in rural Virginia to see their beloved behemoths in the flesh.
Well, make that the fiberglass. That molded material is the DNA of the park's mega-models of the monsters that once ruled the Earth but whose territorial range now is confined to the "educational prehistoric forest" at the intersection of routes 277, 522 and 340 in White Post. Just look for the gas station with the Brontosaurus and its brethren out front.
Dinosaur Land got its start in the late '60s with a single caveman, and it has expanded rather than evolved in the 30 years since. Today, it has about 35 more-or-less authentic models scattered about a pleasantly shady forest redolent with the smell of pine needles.
The park is atypical of '90s-style entertainments, not being wired or interactive. In fact, it bucks the ubiquitous "hands-on" nature of today's amusements for children. "Please, do not climb on the dinosaurs," a sign reads, which may be asking for an awful lot of self-control from patrons who aren't even old enough to read the polite request.
To the practiced parental eye, Dinosaur Land may resemble the land that time forgot in more ways than just its old-fashioned approach to fun, but the true lizard lovers -- who cluster in the 3-7 age group -- don't care that T-Rex has a busted tail or that the Dimetrodon has a chip out of its nose.
"Egg snatcher! Egg snatcher!" Haley shrieks in delighted disapproval as she lets go of her mother's hand to run and point accusingly into the face of Oviraptor, a nasty number reminiscent of the vicious dinosaurs that terrorized the kids in the kitchen in "Jurassic Park." A sign explains that Haley is dead right -- the bird-like omnivore made its living exactly that way.
"This is his first self-chosen activity," says Kelly Sorensen of his son, Thomas, whom he describes as "a walking documentary on dinosaurs."
The Sorensen family was in Washington for the weekend for a wedding, and Dinosaur Land -- 80 miles from a city crammed with famous sights -- was the No. 1 must-see area attraction in Thomas's book.
"I like all of them," says the young Sorensen as he wanders unconcerned into the middle of an "epic battle" (complete with gore and blood) between Titanosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. "They're cool."
Haley and Thomas also don't seem to be bothered by the presence of less-than-period-authentic beasts. No complaints about the integrity of the site being compromised by the inclusion of a 60-foot great white shark or a 70-foot octopus, both inexplicably set in a desert landscape replete with cacti. What counts to the children is being able to go inside the shark's mouth and wave at people through its big white choppers.
And so what if the colossal King Kong lacks a fossil record? His plastic paw is available for Fay Wray-style photo ops that even adults find difficult to resist.
Also difficult to resist will be the pleas of the pint-sized for artifacts of their adventures in Dinosaur Land. To get into the park, patrons walk through the gaping, snaggletoothed mouth of an unidentified giant reptile and directly into the waiting maw of an engorged gift shop.
Kids can pick from puzzles, masks, crayons, bingo games, pins, notebooks, clips, balls, tablecloths, T-shirts and rocks all emblazoned with dinosaurs, not to mention having a chance to cull through the store's notable collection of rubber snakes, spiders and other creepy-crawlies.
The even more extensive section of the gift shop devoted to adults features Pennsylvania Dutch candies and Civil War memorabilia, magnets and moccasins, jams and jellies, figurines, fireworks and Fenton glass. And, yes, Beanie Babies.
Some of what is offered is simply silly -- ghost poop and donut seeds and mosquito traps -- and some mightily kitschy, such as a copy of the last will and testament of Elvis (it runs to 14 pages).
But like the rest of Dinosaur Land, these souvenirs are a reminder that in this era in which everyone is clamoring to reinvent the wheel, change may be an overrated concept. After all, the dinosaurs eschewed it for millions of years, and they ruled the Earth -- and still rule the imagination of many a child.
DINOSAUR LAND -- 3848 Stonewall Jackson Hwy., White Post, Va. From Washington take I-66 west to Exit 6. Go north on Route 522/340 north about seven miles. Dinosaur Land is on the left at the intersections of routes 277, 522 and 340. 540/869-2222. Web site: www.dinosaurland.com. To obtain a brochure, e-mail Dinosaur Land at firstname.lastname@example.org. Open 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. through Labor Day, to 5:30 p.m. through Nov. 1 and to 5 p.m. through Dec. 31. $3 for adults, $2.50 for children 2-10. Children must be accompanied by an adult.
CAPTION: A Tyrannosaurus towers over Thomas Sorensen, 5.