The dinosaurs are back. And so are the kids who love them.
Field Station: Dinosaurs, the sprawling Secaucus theme park loaded with dozens of life-sized prehistoric critters, kicked off its school trip season on April 23 and will open to the general public on Memorial Day weekend.
Busloads of kids have descended on weekdays to embark on an adventure in the park, visiting with moving, roaring, and yes, sometimes dancing dinosaurs.
“The whole idea is we want kids to feel like they’re on a scientific expedition,” said Executive Producer and “Expedition Commander” Guy Gsell. “So we went to our paleontologist and we said, ‘what does a scientific expedition look like?’ It’s tents. It’s not all finished buildings because an expedition has tents. And that’s the vibe of the whole place: kids on a scientific expedition. Our goal is that every kid leaves here a scientist.”
To that end, groups of excited youngsters are led down vegetation-strewn pathways, past towering beasts and into shows and exhibitions where park employees give presentations on various aspects of early life on the planet.
Meeting the dinosaurs
The day begins with a meeting of park staff at 9:15 to discuss any adjustments to the schedule, such as weather issues or cancellations. Then the buses begin to arrive. Each is greeted by a park guide who is assigned to lead them through a schedule of events chosen specifically for them.
“We program the day for the kids based on their ages,” said Gsell. “We have shows that are as old as fourth or fifth grade appropriate. We actually have shows that we can smart up and do for high school kids. We have programming all the way down to 3-year-olds. We pick the show that’s appropriate for the group.”
Altogether the park has 19 shows, according to Lynne Schreur, who carries the documentation and serves as Gsell’s version of Radar O’Reilly, reeling off memorized facts and details. On the day we visited, Schreur said there were 609 kids from nine schools in the park. “Yesterday we had 849,” she added.
“Our goal is that every kid leaves here a scientist.” –Guy Gsell
Paths are largely level and ADA compliant, although one area does require trudging up a hill to visit the Argentinosaurus, the largest animatronic dinosaur in the United States. (It was the largest in the world until last year, when a competing dinosaur in Germany stole her thunder.)
Also atop the hill is the mighty T. Rex, by far the most popular dinosaur with kids.
“You can see Argentinosaurus from the observatory at the Empire State Building,” said Schreur. “You can see T. Rex and bits of the Argentinosaurus from the road, but only in the winter when there are no leaves. If you search ‘New Jersey dinosaurs’ you’ll see random Tweets that are like, ‘I swear I just saw a dinosaur while I was stuck in traffic on the turnpike.’”
The larger dinosaurs spend the off-season outdoors, some under tarps, while the smaller ones hibernate inside containers. Before the spring opening, all are tested and brought back to life by trained technicians.
Staff maintenance people clean and check mechanical problems and fix the creatures’ sound boxes, while professional theater artists paint the outsides based on instruction from the park’s paleontologists—actually staff from the park’s science partner, the New Jersey State Museum.
“They came with us when we picked out the dinosaurs,” said Schreur of the paleontologists, conjuring up an image of shopping for puppies in a pet store.
Asked where one shops for dinosaurs, Gsell said, “There are dinosaurs all over. I went to France, to China, we saw Japanese dinosaurs, we went to Texas, to California. It’s amazing how many electronics and animatronics companies make dinosaurs. So we picked the company who was the most willing to work with our paleontologist to tailor the dinosaurs to what we wanted.”
The animatronic company they settled on was in China, while the “puppet” was manufactured by Erth, an Australian company.
This is not your parents’ puppet show, though. The fully-articulated T. Rex puppet is worn as a body suit by a skilled actor who interacts with the kids in a tightly choreographed science show.
A former stage manager and production supervisor for a children’s theater company, Gsell spent much of his career in the theater, largely behind the scenes, although when he stands up in front of the kids in his “commander” guise, the actor in him sneaks out.
After managing Discovery Times Square in New York City, he decided to merge his love of children’s theater with his knowledge of the exhibit business. Eighteen months later, the doors opened on Field Station: Dinosaurs in May of 2012.
How did he make it a reality so quickly? “I don’t know, in retrospect. I just kept moving forward. So I did a lot of things that probably were not prudent. Like I bought the dinosaurs before I signed the lease.”
Secaucus was chosen for a very specific reason. “I wanted to do it outside because I like the dinosaurs outside better,” he said. “To see them against trees and rocks is much better than in a museum with plastic trees and plastic rocks. I wanted a location that was next to a train station and by an exit from a highway. I looked all around and then found this piece of property. I couldn’t believe it was sitting here, empty.”
The Snake Hill location has a storied past—including a swamp, a hospital, a sanitarium—all of which is recalled at the nighttime “Ghosts of Snake Hill” show the park puts on during the fall.
Visiting the park
“These kids don’t leave Perth Amboy much,” said one chaperone, accompanying a gaggle of wildly animated youngsters. “I’m not being mean. They just don’t. They don’t get out. They’re inner city kids. This is wonderful.”
That same day, Academia Learning Center from Union City was among the schools traversing the park, with 45 kids in tow.
Asked what was his favorite dinosaur, 4-year-old Gabriel (who goes simply by “G”) said, “I like spidorsaurus,” gaining points for originality.
Jayleen, age 4, had a different preference. “Triceratops,” she said enthusiastically. “I like horns.”
“I like baby dinosaurs,” said Melanie, aged 5, adding that her favorite was the T. Rex.
“My favorite is triceratops,” said Jorge, also 5.
Not to be outdone, Melanie changed her vote. “My favorite is two triceratops.”
As to whether the adventure made her want to be a scientist, she didn’t even have to think about it. “I want to be a triceratops,” she said.
The park opens to the public on May 24. Tickets and other information are available on their website at http://fieldstationdinosaurs.com.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.