As the Grant family car pulled out of the parking lot at Water Country USA, 10-year-old Benjamin glanced across the highway and was spellbound. There, poking through the trees, were giant heads of his 42 heroes: the presidents of the United States.
That's where he wanted to go, Benjamin told his mother, Melanie Grant -- to Presidents Park, the Historic Triangle's latest and most quirky tourist lure, where the presidents' noggins have been swollen into 18- to 20-foot-tall concrete busts.
Plopped down on a wooded 10-acre plot near Interstate 64 three miles outside Williamsburg, the 7,000-pound heads have been on display since March, when, after a five-year struggle to house them here, the $10 million park opened.
Visitors stroll along a winding path, pausing to gape at the presidents and soak up biographical trivia displayed on signs near each bust. From the sign for James K. Polk, the 11th president, they learn that as a teenager, he suffered through a gallbladder operation with no anesthesia. Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president, was a star speller as a schoolboy.
Larger signs, some with audio, tell the stories of 14 "defining moments" in U.S. history, such as the Civil War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Inside the brick visitors center is a gift shop full of presidential kitsch, where a portrait of former first cat Socks Clinton goes for $18.95.
Benjamin, a staunch Republican, couldn't get enough. A day after first spotting the presidents, he was gazing up at the immense rendition of his favorite, Ronald Reagan.
The magnitude of the busts made the experience all the better, he said, pointing across the park toward Theodore Roosevelt. "You can look at them all the way over there and still see them," said Benjamin, whose family was visiting from Stanley, N.C. "This place is cool."
That's just the kind of reaction David Adickes and Everette H. Newman III, the park's principal owners, are basking in. After all, the huge heads were a tough sell in Williamsburg, home of the restored 18th-century capital of Virginia.
Adickes, the artist who conceived of the park, is from Houston, where large is the norm. Visiting Mount Rushmore a few years back, Adickes wished he could get closer to the chiseled presidents. The idea for the big heads "just popped into my small head," Adickes said.
He had some experience with large figures -- and with community resistance. A former painter, Adickes caused even his hometown art critics to wince at his six-story statue of Lone Star hero Sam Houston, which stands along a highway outside Houston. His 36-foot-tall abstract cello in downtown Houston did not get rave reviews, either.
Still, he said, "I got used to the idea of making big pieces outside because they get so much feedback."
Feedback -- more like outcry -- is what Adickes got when he and Newman, a Williamsburg developer, proposed the park four years ago. Officials, historical preservationists and the local newspaper slammed the idea. Some said it did not fit the colonial emphasis of the area. Others said it was just plain garish.
York County officials blocked the park by requiring costly special-use zoning permits. Adickes and Newman took the county to court and won.
During the fight, Adickes opened his first Presidents Park near Deadwood, S.D. He is planning a third in Florida.
Newman, the developer of Water Country USA, said he, too, was initially skeptical of Adickes's idea, not because he fretted about the region's historical integrity, but because he questioned the park's profit potential. Then he realized that if done right, the park could be educational.
Newman enlisted dozens of teachers and a "national council of scholars" to design a curriculum for the park that fits into Virginia's Standards of Learning. Because of that, school groups -- and many others -- have come. And they have learned, he said.
"This is the only place in the entire country that represents its beginnings . . . to the present, and that's pretty significant," Newman said.
The park has drawn more than 20,000 visitors since March 1, he said. That's less than a tenth of what Colonial Williamsburg attracts but just fine for a new business, Newman said.
There is little disagreement that the busts are impressive. Adickes spent five years making them, with some presidents presenting more of a challenge than others. Gerald R. Ford's features were hard to pin down, as was Bill Clinton's hairstyle, he said. George H.W. Bush, who once posed for Adickes, was his favorite. The busts each took about six weeks to complete.
There's space for eight more busts, and Adickes said he will be ready this fall if Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) wins the presidency. Kerry's face would be easy to render because it is long and craggy, he said.
To Newman's delight, most visitors don't find the enormous heads the least bit tacky. Comments on exit surveys have been more than 90 percent glowing, he said. And the park has won over some of its original doubters -- sort of.
"We are a nation that is sorely in need of more aggressive enlightenment on our own nation's history, and to the extent Presidents Park helps do that, we certainly commend them for it," said Tim Andrews, spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Or as Walter C. Zaremba, a member of the York County Board of Supervisors, said: "There is resigned acceptance of it."
Visiting on a recent day, Naleen Cordle of Blackstone, Va., called the park "moving" and chalked up opposition to the "snooty-patootie" attitude of Williamsburg residents.
"They're men that . . . led our country into the future," she said of the presidents. "They were larger than life."