March 28, 2013

Leapin’ lizards! Lifelike dinosaurs return to the NC Zoo

An exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs – which brought increased visitors and money to the NC Zoo last year – return for a limited engagement.

A cacophony of roars and screeches emanate from a foresty edge of the North Carolina Zoo.

But visitors need not worry.

Follow the strange noises. Take a closer look. You’ll see that 15 animatronic dinosaurs are to blame.

The dinosaurs – affixed to the ground but bobbing and weaving, one spraying water on passersby – are back at the zoo after popular demand. A limited exhibition last year proved very successful, helping line the pockets of the state-owned zoo and leading it to set an annual attendance record for the year.

“We talked to other zoos and were confident they would do well,” zoo director David Jones said of the dinosaurs, which are on lease from a Texas company. “But they exceeded expectations.”

Dinosaur replicas were made of concrete about 20 years ago, then ones crafted out of fiberglass showed up. But only within the past decade has technology improved enough to have a moving dinosaur with a skin-like cover outdoors in all weather conditions.

The zoo’s dinosaur exhibit, on display through October, also includes a faux paleontology site that lets kids dig for real fossils. Shark teeth, bones, ammonite and coral are buried beneath gravel and can be taken home as relics if excavated by kids.

“Are you about done digging?” a Trinity Elementary School teacher asked several students who were digging away Thursday. “Do you want to go see the gorillas?”

Two kids at the same time: “No!”

Then another: “Let’s stay here all day!”

Gene Dupree brought his three kids from Louisburg as part of a home-school group to visit the zoo Thursday..

“The digging is great because they can explore on their own, find out what’s there for themselves,” he said. “They love it.”

More than 240,000 people, about 35 percent of attendees in 2012, paid the extra fee last year to see the dinosaurs. The bottom line overall moved up by $900,000.

This year, the dinosaur charge will be $4 per person, and group deals and other specials are available.

Mary Joan Pugh, deputy director of the zoo, said she is confident the dinosaurs will more than recoup the $500,000 they cost each month they are will be onsite this year.

“It’s great because kids can learn about dinosaurs and plants they wouldn’t anywhere else,” said Pugh, speaking of the cycads, magnolias and horsetails planted around the exhibit that have existed since the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

She added that this exhibit also “works because we can make the money back.”

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