Dinosaur exhibit opens at Ripley’s aquarium

Mar. 29, 2013 @ 11:33 PM

Sharks out, dinosaurs in.

The new Dinosaurs — When Giants Ruled! exhibit has replaced the temporary sharks exhibit at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and is now open to the public. The display features several life-size animatronic dinosaurs, interactive displays and games, as well as information about the featured animals and the world as it was millions of years ago.

The special guest at Thursday’s grand opening of the exhibit was Ariana Richards, the actress who played Lex Murphy in “Jurassic Park.”

“This is just a fantastic aquarium ... and (this exhibit is) such a tribute to dinosaurs, to these ancient beings that walked the earth millions of years ago,” Richards said. “... There’s something innate in each one of us, a kind of wonder that these creatures inspire, and fear as well.”

When guests enter the dark dinosaur room from the aquarium, immediately to their left is a mechanical replica of a sea-dwelling dinosaur, encased by glass as though it’s one of the live aquarium exhibits. The lighting is a deep-ocean blue.

The next display, not fully fleshed out, is a mock-museum exhibit of a Stegosaurus skeleton. In front of the skeleton, several children crowded around a large box of sand. One boy wearing yellow goggles furiously brushed the sand near the edge.

A couple of television screens display computer-animated dinosaur videos. In one video, two beasts fight.

Then there was the Apatosaurus, the long-necked leaf-eater. Its mechanical neck and tail swayed a little. A boy reached up to touch the rubbery neck.

“This is fake!” the boy shouted.

“Don’t touch,” his teacher said.

Further down the outer edge of the room, a fully grown Chasmosaurus — more commonly known as the Triceratops — occasionally emitted a roar from its beak-like mouth. A smaller Chasmosaurus, presumably the baby, stood next to its mother. According to the information plate in front of the display, “Chasmosaurus” means ravine reptile. The name comes from the creature’s large, bony skull plate, which had depressions resembling ravines. When threatened, the Chasmosaurus charged its enemy.

Children and parents alike competed for turns at the interactive puzzle and game screens.

“The kids are in there crawling all over the exhibit, but what’s funny is, they’re having to push their parents away, because the parents want to be there, too,” said Tennessee Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker, another guest at the exhibit’s grand opening. “The experience is great for everyone.”

Near one of the interactive screens was a massive volcano display. Its opening glowed red.

In the middle of the room stood the display’s centerpiece, and the centerpiece of the dinosaur world: the Tyrannosaurus rex, aka T. rex, aka tyrant lizard. Its jaw, torso and arms moved slightly. It looked poised to attack.

Several young boys gathered in front of the T. rex and pretended to fire guns at it, then moved on to the next display. Three girls reached up and tried to touch the lizard’s teeth. As they walked away, they debated whom the T. rex is looking at. Its gaze, like the Mona Lisa’s, followed a visitor around the room.

In the crowded space, a man was almost hit by a sudden jolt of the T. rex tail. He dodged, then moved over to the sandbox.

“Do you want to be an archaeologist?” the man asked the boy with the yellow goggles as he dug in the sand.

“Yes,” the boy said, without looking up from the bones he uncovered.

rhargett@themountainpress.com