When Dinosaurs Fought In The Civil War

Between 1861 and 1865 the bloodiest battles in US history were fought on American soil during the American Civil War. For more than four violent years, armies fought and died after 11 Southern Confederate states seceded from the United States of America over the right to own slaves. After 750,000 American citizens died, combat finally ended with the abolition of slavery and surrender by the Confederate army. But what if something else had happened?

Try then, to imagine that 200 million years earlier (on land that would come to be known by us as a historic Civil War battlefield) massive dinosaurs walked on the same ground fighting their own bloody battles for survival.

Leave it to the imagination of Mark Cline to show us what things might look like had these two events taken place concurrently.  In his now defunct attraction Escape from Dinosaur Kingdom (2005-2012), visitors could see what might have transpired had the Union army captured and used carnivorous dinosaurs as weapons against the Confederate troops!

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Located in Natural Bridge, VA’s tourist complex, Cline had created four unique and separate attractions. Visitors could stop to his free sculptural attraction “Foamhenge” (a true to scale Styrofoam replica of Stonehenge), the could “Hunt Bigfoot with a Redneck” (I’ll give you one guess who the Redneck was!) and they could walk through his beloved Haunted Monster Museum (which turned out to be one of our most popular Enchanted Kiddieland posts!). Included with your value price 2 for 1 admission to the Monster Museum, you also got to travel back to 1863 and visit his imaginative”Dinosaur Kingdom.”

Already an expert after building more than 400 dinosaurs for roadside attractions and theme parks, Cline knew that his Dino park would need to be different if it was going to stand out. valley-of-gwangi-pic-3Lucky for us, he possesses an incredible imagination and an even more powerful sense of humor! The park’s concept is loosely based on the 1969 Ray Harryhausen film, Valley of the Gwangi, (Which pits cowboys against dinosaurs in a special effects Dynamation spectacular!)

Cline imagined a similar scene substituting cowboys with Union Soldiers as villains who use the Dinosaurs as weapons against the South (after all, this attraction is in the former Confederate state of Virginia!) Before you get too upset about the political ramifications of the south winning the Civil War, Cline has stated that he had hoped to build a second Civil War dinosaur park in Gettysburg wherein the Confederate soldiers are the bad guys. Regrettably, that dream never came to fruition.

Dinosaur Kingdom begins its storytelling through journals violently strewn about a campsite with pots and pans, and overturned wagons. By reading the notebooks, visitors can surmise that a family of paleontologists entered a cave in search of fossils only to find living dinosaurs that had escaped (and were now being used by the North to win the war!)! You can see the civilian mother and father Garrison danging precariously in the trees above the sharp teeth of a hungry carnivore.  Dinosaur Kingdom

As guests entered the self guided wooded park, they’d hear the sounds of nature; sticks cracking under shoes and birds- but beyond this, was the omnipresent laughter of children (and adults!) as they were welcomed into wacky the mind of Mark Cline for a short while. A button with a hand painted sign reading “Feeding Time” begs to be pushed, only to discover that you are standing directly beneath the motorized jaws of a hungry T Rex and a dangling deer carcass! A sign tacked to a tree warned “Don’t Look Up!”, but of course you did, only to see an angry reptile climbing straight toward you. In one scene, a herd of curious raptors surrounds farm animals who had all stacked themselves on top of one another until there was a trembling rabbit sitting on the back of a deer who was sitting on the back of a cow resulting in classic cartoon imagery. One of my favorite gags was a full sized port-a-potty that looked no different from any other, but if you were brave enough to open the door you were met with a shocked looking Yankee soldier being attacked by dinosaurs that had busted through the back walls while he was taking care of business.

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Part Wild West park, part Dinosaur Park, part Roadside tourist trap, this place was a dream come true for some road weary travelers who didn’t even know it was here. The park opened in 2005, and our visit was in 2008, meaning it was in a mostly complete state. However, as an ongoing project, Mark Cline continued to add characters and beasts as the years went on. I’m told that later iterations included Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, and even a gorilla wearing a cowboy hat. (Hey, don’t tell me you’re getting upset about historical accuracy now!)

Unfortunately, along with the heartbreaking loss of the Monster Museum, much of the attraction was destroyed in a devastating fire in 2012. The park sat vacant for years with an online notice to “check back in 2013.” Folks like me started to lose hope, checking back not only in 2013, but in 2014, and 2015  as well finding no status change.

However, you can’t keep a good dinosaur park down, and like a Phoenix  no, like a Pterodactyl rising from the ashes, the park has some exciting news on the horizon. Last fall, the dinosaurs made a limited engagement appearance at Clark’s Eliok Farm  to terrorize some fairy tale characters (YES, PLEASE!) in the temporary “Enchanted Dinosaur Forest“.  Clark’s Farm, which regular Kiddieland readers will recognize as a sanctuary for rescued Enchanted Forest, MD figures housed the salvaged dinosaurs from September to November 2015 in a hysterical mash up of Dinosaurs and storybook characters that could only come from the off-kilter mind of Professor Cline!

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Photo Courtesy of Enchanted Castle Studios

We were so thrilled to see that many of the dinosaurs had survived, but this story has an even happier ending. According to his Facebook page, Mark Cline is planning to bring Dinosaurs back to Natural Bridge, Virginia with the opening of Dinosaur Kingdom II in June 2016! Based on this concept art, my guess is that guests may be riding through this one on by train? Oh, I am so there!

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Photo Courtesy of Enchanted Castle Studios

So don’t fret, though you may have never gotten to experience the weirdness of the original Dinosaur Kingdom and Haunted Monster Museum, it looks like this summer you may be able to marvel at these Jurrassic giants once again in Natural Bridge!

Thanks for all the memories, Mark!

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How The Miniature West Was Won

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that many kiddie parks focus on the sweeter parts of childhood. In fact, most of the places that I post about are decidedly “girly” in theme: Princess castles, Mother Goose, Alice in Wonderland. There is no debating who the intended audiences for these attractions were.  However, there is another type of kiddie park that was geared at the rough and tumble boys of the 1950s; boys who grew up on Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. They were dirty, old fashioned, and gritty. Let me introduce you to the Wild West Park. Now nearly extinct, these parks usually featured skits and shows filled with shoot-outs, bank robberies, and undertakers. Often they included inappropriate themes like drinking, can-can girls, and train robberies. One such park still exists in Netcong, NJ. Opened in 1956, it continues to operate today as Wild West City.  Incredibly, the park has been under the ownership of the same family since 1966. The shows are a joy, and the actors that work to recreate Dodge City in 1880 clearly love their jobs. Many that I spoke to explained that they felt like it was their second home. They worked there, their children worked there, and they hoped the park would be around long enough for their grandchildren to work there. Young men skillfully rode horses and were clearly proud of their role in this historic place.

It is here, among the daily stunt shows, the gunfights, and the saloons that you will also find a miniature treasure that is easy to walk by. A long trailer fitted with a glass front is home to Pixieland, which took 15 years to build. The attraction isn’t mentioned on the park’s website, but it literally captivated me as I stared and laughed at its scenes until I was pulled away before I missed the next scheduled show!

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A  printed description next to the diorama proudly describes the work:

PIXIELAND was made in Australia by Mr. A. Langham, a mechanical engineer. It took 15 years to build with the help of his wife and son. All the tiny figures and animals are hand carved out of wood and hollowed out to take the mechanical movements.

They are all dressed an finished to look lifelike, although only five inches high. All the scenery and effects are handmade also. Every animation tells a humorous story; keep this in mind as you watch. For instance, observe the cross-eyed cowboy on the cross-eyed horse and the horse’s eyes roll. See the prisoner sawing his way out of jail. The old man is shooting rabbits as they pop out of their holes. He is swearing as he misses them. Watch his mouth. See the bears tongue move as he eats the honey.

Chief Sitting Bull’s eyes move as he oversee s the war dance. The hair of the man tied to the totem pole raises in fright. The horse at the wagon, his ears are moving. As the baby pulls the mother’s pigtail, watch her mouth move as she cries! The cowboy holding a lighted lantern in his toes is breathing in and out. The cowboy playing the harmonica in the Hillbilly band puffs out his cheeks. The man next to him opens an closes his eyes.

Underneath Pixieland is a maze of shafts, pulleys, bolts, gears, cams and levers. All these too are handmade. The main shafts are powered by 1 H.P. electric motor using 110 volts.

Originally the entire unit was designed to be portable and came apart into five-foot base sections. The entire display was enclosed as you now see it and trailer mounted in 1972.

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I’ve visited a lot of parks and seen a lot of dioramas and animatronics, but I have never seen anything like this one! First, it is enormous, stretching the length of a trailer. You can’t possibly take it all in at once. The costuming details along with the characters’ strange pointed ears and the cartoonish features ensure that viewers can’t help but smile at them. The scenes are sometimes funny, sometimes gruesome, and sometimes politically incorrect. One vignette shows a tribe of native Americans dancing around a white cowboy tied to a pole with a sign reading “Injun Country. Paleface Keep Out By Order Sittin Bull”. Another scene shows a man with an arrow through his face (!) kicking his feet helplessly as he takes his final breath, and in another, a cowboy with a bloody mouth sits on the chest of an Indian while pistol whipping him in the face…Yes...pistol whipping him in the face.

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Still photos do not do it justice, as it is so amazing to see every minute detail of this artwork moving simultaneously. I strongly encourage you to stop by this park to see it for yourself.  There’s plenty more to see as well, so hop on your saddle and get there when they open up this May, cowpoke.

What In God’s Name? The Chapels of Kiddieland

One of the most unusual things you’ll begin to notice when you visit a lot of kiddie parks is the amount of churches you’ll find. When you think about an amusement park today, it is hard to imagine that something so blatantly religious could be an important part of a family’s vacation. Don’t forget, most of these parks were built in the 1950s at a time when the majority of Americans were practicing Christians that attended church every Sunday. In post-war America, the nation was prosperous, and the culture shifted to a more conservative set of values. Families moved out of small city homes and into large suburban ranches. Boomers saw the church as an important pillar of these newly developed suburban communities. It was a place for families to pray, but also to socialize with their neighbors. For parks, building a church was not just culturally appropriate, but it also made good business sense. At a time when families would spend weekend getaways visiting these new amusements, many still wanted a place to worship. This unique intersection between family fun and faith resulted in many kiddie parks having small chapels on their property.

It is in these small churches that families could gather to quietly pay respect to God and step away from the commotion and excitement outside. It is no surprise that many of these small structures are nestled away in quiet forests away from the park’s sensationalism. As parks grew, many are now surrounded by noisy rides and video games. You might walk right by them today without even realizing that they are churches. In fact, most people seem to do just that! Today we’re going to take a moment to peek inside the pews of these small houses of worship.

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At Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, NY, you’ll need to cross a foot bridge in the rolling hills to find this serene chapel with a bright red roof hiding between the trees. This is Saint Nicholas Chapel, and once inside you’ll find a simple rustic church with German influenced design.
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With a mood that differs from most of the whimsical music shows, a group of actors presents a live Nativity Pageant nearby daily.

 

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Story Book Land in NJ welcomes visitors to the “Chapel Of Peace”. This tiny church, The Chapel was built by 18-year-old Andrew Cresci as a gift to his parents Celestine and Augustus Cresci in 1885, and stood at their home in Vineland, NJ. Benediction was held in the chapel on the feast days of each saint until the family property was sold, and the chapel was moved to a cemetery in Union NJ where it fell into disrepair. It was later rescued by Story Book Land, who kept the interior and exterior intact, including the intricate stained glass windows made of sand.

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Nearby a ramshackle nativity is set up using mannequins with wigs, false beards and fabric clothing.

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At Santa’s Village in New Hampshire, an awe-inspiring church sits between the Sugar and Spice Bake shop and the  SS Peppermint Twist ride. A fantastically ornate interior surprises guests entering the rustic log structure. Contained within is an altar built in 1864 for the Cathedral of Manchester. Seven Bishops were consecrated in front of this impressive structure which was graciously given to Santa’s Village by All Saints’ Parish in Lancaster NH when the church was renovated.

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A young elf can be seen worshiping on this late 60s or early 70s postcard of the church.

 

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In what appears to a running theme, A fiberglass nativity is spread out in a wide area of the park, including the Three Wise Men traveling to the manger on camel back.

 

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Down an unassuming path, a short little building with a Queen Anne dome turret stands amongst the landscaping. In Storyland of Glenn, NH, a simple miniaturized church houses two small rows of single seat pews that lead up to fabric draped altar holding just an acrylic encased bible and a vase of fresh flowers. A token sign outside reminds visitors to finish their food and drink before entering the chapel. This is, after all, a house of the lord.

 

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Santa’s Land  inVT features one of the only open air areas of worship I’ve seen, and it happens to be hog sty adjacent. I suppose no other scene more accurately captures the feeling of the nativity stable than one with live pigs running around. A crazy-eyed goat seems tacked on and out-of-place amongst the more detailed figures. There are also pipe organs mounted above the entrance, which seemingly attach to nothing. They do give the whole area a “churchy” vibe though, so its nice to see that they are still being displayed!

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At Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, PA a simple Amish church is on the park property. Traditionally, the Amish do not include ornate or decorative elements in their building techniques, and this church is no exception. It resembles many of the larger churches found in the area, but this miniaturized one seats just 8 people!

 

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We have talked a lot about the Magic Forest on this site, and we often chuckle at some of the creepy statues that inhabit their grounds. I have to tell you that when I stepped inside this log building, I was genuinely shocked at what I found inside! Despite the run down exterior typical of this overgrown park, the inside of this rustic log church blew my mind. Log elements intersect with roman catholic elements like stained glass and a stone holy water font. From the woodsy carved altar and colored lightbulb chandeliers the design elements of this Catholic church come together to create an altogether surreal house of worship.

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You might think that park chapels are only for the wholesome family focused Santa parks and Fairy Tale Lands that popped up in the middle of the twentieth century, but there’s another kind of park that we’ve yet to scratch the surface on here at Kiddieland, Giddy up- it’s the Wild West Park! Once plentiful, there are only a few of these parks remaining. At Wild West City in Netcong, NJ actors recreate a day in the life of Dodge City, KS in the 1880s and while gunslinging cowboys fall off real horses and stage coaches drive by, there is a quiet escape from the shootouts on main street. Near the back of the park next to Boot Hill, a nondenominational chapel welcomes all. You can take a moment to quietly reflect while you mourn your fallen bandits at this historic house of the lord. Uncle Floyd is purportedly a fan of the chapel, as it features one modern convenience that was not available in the old west-air conditioning!

Although I’m not religious, I grew up in a town that boasted the claim of “America’s smallest chapel” which, as a fan of tourism, always attracted me, and I know this is where my fascination with tiny churches originated. As a small town teen (with no church affiliations), I remember going into the chapel with my brother and just taking in the strangeness of the place. Having grown up in a primarily Catholic area, we were accostomed to seeing ornate churches with giant steeples, and rituals we didn’t understand. This simple little place made no sense. We took rosary beads and signed the registry book even though we weren’t Catholic. My brother used to say that when he got married, he wanted to have his tiny wedding there, and coming from a very large family, we thought that was hilarious. I guess we pictured our 15 aunts and uncles and 50+ cousins crammed in the small pews. Now that I’ve been to some of these small churches, I’m not sure Decker’s Chapel can continue with their draw of “smallest church in America” (though they still claim to be!)Whether you are looking for a quiet escape from a noisy day at the park, or want a unique place to hold an intimate wedding, these small park chapels are another way that vintage attractions are keeping things weird.

Parks like Holiday World have even continued the tradition and recently transported a historic 1880s church to the park in 2012. At Knott’s Berry Farm, you can get married at the Chapel of Reflection and Snoopy can even attend your wedding, and late to the game Walt Disney World built their 300 seat nondenominational Wedding Pavillion  on the Seven Seas Lagoon in 1995 so that guests could have a fairy tale wedding with a “picturesque backdrop of Cinderella Castle”.

There’s something special about these small spaces. Whether they are built by families out of love for each other and their god, or because  that was all that was affordable for a tiny community, these humble churches are a unique testament to a time lost. Regardless of your religious affiliation, there’s something special about that.

Peace be with you.