Giant robot dinosaurs stalk boreal forest

Monday, August 9, 2010

In a boreal forest not far from the city, a hungry T. rex chomps its teeth on a hapless dinosnack and roars at the watching humans.

Welcome to Jurassic Forest, a 16-hectare "prehistoric preserve" just north of Gibbons, near the Goose Hummock Golf Resort.

Like a scene out of the Hollywood movie Jurassic Park, 40 dinosaurs are coming to life amid a primordial setting of poplars, spruces, larches, ferns -- and mosquitoes.

The area's newest tourist attraction bustled with action Wednesday as workers hurried to prepare for the opening. In the parking lot, a workman bolted up a stop sign. Inside the gift shop, staffers stocked souvenir pith helmets and ball caps.

"Edmontonians don't need to necessarily go to Drumheller anymore to experience the dinosaurs and the time period," said general manager Greg Suess.

Jurassic Forest, which opens Friday, is an educational and entertainment facility with a learning centre that features interactive exhibits, a gift shop, concessions, a picnic area and an adventure play area where kids can dig for bones or ride a triceratops.

"Kids and families -that's really first and foremost our audience, that's the group we're trying to capture. Hopefully, everybody goes home with a bit of a unique learning experience."

But the real stars of the place are found beside two roped boardwalks built just above boggy marsh and forest floor.

"The most unique part is the robotic features and the environment -- once you see where the dinosaurs are located, that's what makes this place really, really special."

As approaching visitors trigger sensors, life-size dinosaurs along the path bellow and sway their heads or swipe their tails, snap their jaws, or even lay eggs.

The fleshy-looking computerized dinos have been programmed with a series of movements that Suess says will be changed to keep the park fresh. The models were custom sculpted in China for the park and new ones will eventually be added as the park expands, Suess said.

He said he doesn't know much each dinosaur cost.

The routes are dotted with educational signs highlighting both prehistoric and current flora and fauna. Guides will also offer interpretive talks and lead tour groups and field trips.

Tickets are $13 for adults, $8 for children and $10 for youths 14-17 and seniors. The park, open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, is just off Highway 28A and Township Road 564, about 43 kilometres north of Edmonton. Follow the signs to Goose Hummock.

Under construction for 18 months, the park has hired a staff of three full-timers and 27 seasonal and part-timers.

A group of investors, who Suess says prefer to remain out of the spotlight for now, spent millions of dollars on the park. Suess won't reveal their identities, but said there are "common elements" with the ownership of Goose Hummock Golf Resort.

"The gentleman, in particular, that is kind of the primary owner -- this is his vision and his dream."

The park wanted to get its science right, so it enlisted University of Alberta paleontology student Liz Martin as a technical adviser.

"I think (kids) are going to love it," Martin said. "It's definitely going to get kids interested. It's the first place that you can actually see them in their natural habitat and moving."

Parent Shelley Svidal has kept track of the park on Twitter and is looking forward to taking her daughters there.

"I think it's wonderful that a real Jurassic Forest, complete with robotic dinosaurs, has been recreated on the outskirts of Edmonton," she said. "It will provide a great learning opportunity for adults and children alike."

Even world-famous University of Alberta dinosaur expert Philip Currie was impressed on a visit to Jurassic Forest last week with his grandchildren Milie, 6, and Valdemar, 4.

Currie called it a worthy addition to Alberta's growing number of dinosaur attractions, including the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, the similar Dinosaurs Alive travelling exhibition now at the Calgary Zoo and a proposed museum in Grande Prairie.

Currie has seen many "dinamatronic" displays over the years, including bad ones that buzzed, squeaked and jerked as they moved.

"I went to the park with no great expectations, but an open mind," Currie said by e-mail from Grande Prairie, where he's doing fieldwork.

"I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised, even though everything was still not finished at the time of my visit. The dinosaur models are excellent scientifically, esthetically and mechanically."

One complaint Currie did have was the name was inappropriate, since the Jurassic period -- about 140 million to 200 million years ago -- isn't well represented in Alberta's fossil record and the plants in the park are more modern, more Cretaceous, than Jurassic, he said.

"Too bad they did not call it Cretaceous Forest instead."

Currie's grandchildren also thought the dinosaurs were realistic -- maybe too much.

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