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Stupid Dino Tricks: A Visit to Kent Hovind’s Dinosaur Adventure Land

Article

Greg Martinez

Volume 28.6, November / December 2004

Young-earth creationist Kent Hovind has built a dinosaur-filled theme park in the Florida panhandle and claims to prove that evolution is bunk. A visit there shows that it is definitely a fantasy land.

Old Palafox Street is an aging, two-lane stretch of road running through the middle of Pensacola, Florida. To the east of Old Palafox, the next major road is Interstate 110 and in between those thoroughfares rests the sprawling campus of Pensacola Christian Academy, quickly followed by the even more sprawling campus of Pensacola Christian College. Both campuses are crammed with spotlessly maintained buildings and grounds. They stand out starkly amid the visible economic decline that surrounds them. The area is littered with empty, boarded-up buildings and abandoned strip malls.

Less than a mile north of the Academy on Old Palafox is a Christian educational center aimed at an even younger set of pupils. Bracketed by auto-repair businesses and across the street from a pawn shop, Dinosaur Adventure Land beckons all comers with a billboard-sized street sign that includes a fierce cartoon dinosaur and announces, “Evolution: What a Dumb Idea!” The park’s slogan is: “Where dinosaurs and the Bible meet!” Built in 2001 by Kent Hovind, founder of ministry, Creation Science Evangelism, the park boasts having hosted over 38,000 guests (Goodnough 2004). (This number may seem small compared to attendance rates at other Florida theme parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, but it is also small in actual numbers. This averages out to approximately two hundred and forty guests a week, or less than fifty a day.)

The building of this rather small park has created a “tempest in a teapot” kind of controversy with local government. Essentially, Hovind converted the backyard of his home at 29 Cummings Road into a theme park, improvising an entrance off Palafox and refusing to file the proper zoning-permit requests with Escambia County. Hovind was charged on September 13, 2002, for failure to observe county zoning regulations, but through many legal maneuvers (multiple requests to have judges recuse themselves, switching lawyers and eventually requesting a public defender, and various stays requested, once for failing to appear), the case is approaching its two-year anniversary in the court system with no conclusion imminent. The charge is a second-degree misdemeanor resulting from refusing to pay a $50 permitting fee.

This is not Hovind’s only scrape with the law (a visit to the Escambia County Clerk of the Courts Web site shows over a dozen court cases involving Hovind and his family). A month before the misdemeanor charge, Hovind was charged with felony assault, battery, and burglary with assault or battery. Charges were dropped in December 2002 when the victim, a member of Hovind’s congregation, withdrew the complaint. (A lengthy description of the incident and an e-mail tit-for-tat between Hovind and his accuser can be found at www.geocities.com/kenthovind.) More significantly, the Internal Revenue Service raided Hovind’s home and office in April 2004, confiscating financial documents related to the ministry and the park since January 1997. The IRS is charging that Hovind is evading taxes on more than $1 million in annual income and does not have a business license nor tax-exempt status for his ministry and the park (Norman 2004).

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Dinosaur Adventure Land (DAL) and Hovind’s home and ministry compound reside on approximately two acres. The entrance to DAL is off a road dominated by industrial parks, car dealerships, closed businesses, and convenience stores. The rear entrance, which leads to Hovind’s home and the buildings for his Creation Science Evangelism (CSE) ministry, are off a pleasant and quiet residential road lined with modest single-family homes. One could walk from the entrance of the park (with a gate that very much recalls the memorable entrance in the film Jurassic Park) to the entrance of Hovind’s ministry in about thirty seconds. The effect really is like being in someone’s big backyard, stuffed full of children’s games and playground equipment . . . and lots of fiberglass dinosaurs. (A pamphlet in the bookstore explains that the park is available for children’s birthday parties.)

It is notable that the “Suggested Donation $7.00” mentioned on the ground-level entrance sign becomes a required admission fee by the time one enters the attraction. The park is centralized around the three-story main building that houses the admission office/bookstore, “Hands-on Science Center,” and park offices.

The bookstore is small but has a wide-ranging selection of books, videos, DVDs, fossil replicas, hats, T-shirts, toys, cold drinks, photographic film, and so forth. The book selection reveals a broad array of concerns for Hovind aside from creationism. Unsurprisingly, there are titles addressing how to fight the teaching of evolution in public schools, but there are also some that describe how to fight the coming New World Order. Beyond conspiracies, Hovind also seeks to inform visitors about cryptozoology (books about sea and lake monsters—more about that later), home schooling, the risks of immunization, and a government-suppressed cure for cancer (Laetril).

Touring Pseudoscience

Practically from the moment you enter the park, you are surrounded by tour guides. They are all male, appear to be in their twenties, and all wear the same yellow, oxford, button-down shirts with the DAL logo embossed above the breast pocket. They are omnipresent and suffocatingly attentive. They are the most important part of the park, because they are the ones who carry out its true mission. They keep up a breathless stream of patter and proselytizing, declaring almost everything in the environs an example of God’s love and power.

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The guides sweep the crowd of children and their adult escorts to the first part of the tour, called “The Expedition.” It is a collection of playground equipment and learning-center activities dressed up with dinosaur-related names and the occasional dino head or tail. There is a sign next to each activity that explains what to do, the science it purports to illustrate, and the spiritual lesson that one should really take away from the experience. There is a simple lever-and-pulley device that a child can sit in and pull himself up and down on very easily. It is called the “Longneck Liftasaurus,” and after the guides demonstrate the device with a child volunteer, they tell their audience that while the block-and-tackle device can give one a physical lift—that’s the science lesson—it is only God that can give one a spiritual lift—that’s the spiritual lesson.

Then it is on to the “Circle Swivel Springasaurus,” in which a child volunteer is spun around a clearing on a swiveling harness that is suspended under the spreading branches of a huge, live oak tree. The child is instructed in how to hold his legs and arms to control his balance and change the shape of the arc. The science lesson includes some vague statements about centrifugal forces and conservation of energy, but the real point is that a life without God can leave you dizzy and confused and only God’s guidance can show you the way. This is recited while the child stumbles around and nearly falls, indeed dizzy and confused after his Springasaurus experience, eliciting laughter from the crowd. The guides get a bigger laugh when they advise him that if he feels like he’s going to “puke,” he “should puke in the bushes and not on any of the rides.” This, like almost everything said by the tour guides, is scripted. There is a television in the bookstore running a copy of the videotaped tour of the park hosted by Hovind, and his narration, even down to the “puke” joke, is repeated by the guides.

And on and on it goes. A visit to a common trampoline equipped with a low basketball hoop is next. The object is to bounce but stay in enough control to focus on getting the ball through the hoop. God, the guide intones, requires your total concentration; you need to focus on Him too. A climbing wall gets the same tiresome treatment. The guides get to rest their voices when they declare twenty minutes of free play for the kids.

Two single-user restrooms form a border to “The Expedition,” and they provide what may be the most humorous item in the park. Bolted to the wall in both the boys and girls rooms are chains with tracts by the cartoonist/evangelist Jack Chick hanging from them. The pages are laminated and set on rings for ease of reading while using the toilet.

Eventually, the guides gather up the visitors and direct them to the “Raptor Range” on the other side of the park. This section follows the same pattern as “The Expedition,” but with less control by the guides. The area is dominated by the “Dinosaur Frisbee Golf” course and the “Super Sound Satellite” (two concave disks that send echoes back and forth across the park that can only be heard by standing and speaking in a particular spot). The game with the longest line is the “Dinosaur Hunt,” which is two large, rubber slingshots mounted in a wooden frame. Participants are given three water balloons apiece to launch at a metal-sculpture T. rex and stegosaurus.

During the free-play session earlier, five of the guides went to that game and began filling a large bucket with water balloons in preparation for the next stage of the tour. I wandered past taking photographs and eavesdropped on their conversation for a few moments. One would expect that men of that age would be talking about girls, sports, or even politics, but they were animatedly discussing a particular bit of scripture and how Presbyterians were particularly misguided in their interpretation. There was much gentle tsk-tsking when a balloon got loose from a fill-valve and sprayed the khakis of two of the guides.

Second in popularity to the water-balloon attack is the “Flingasaurus,” a four-seat swing like one would find at a carnival. It is painted with black and yellow striping and spots on a green background. There is also a teeter-totter with a crossbeam that is cut and painted to resemble a row of large teeth. The science lessons are quite a bit thinner here than on “The Expedition,” but the spiritual lessons are always there.

The “Science” Center

The crowd is eventually pushed along to visit the “Science Center.” Happily, it is air-conditioned and parents are slow to leave when the next stage of the tour is announced. The center is probably the cleverest in its seduction of the park visitors. Spread over three stories are demonstrations of actual science (gyroscopes, the Bernoulli effect, magnets, etc.) resting side by side with displays of pseudoscience, parapsychology, religious cant, and quackery. Each display is written in the same authoritative voice, but the voice is deceptive. Factually accurate sentences are mixed in with sentences that are patently false, producing a farrago of argument that only the most careful of readers will be able to parse.

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A perfect example of this stands directly to the right of the entrance door. A sandwich sign rests above a long trough filled with sand, and a water spigot rests above the sand. Visitors are encouraged to make their own miniature Grand Canyon the way it was really made: by the Noachian Flood. The signs mock any other ideas of the canyon’s formation.

Another installation purports to address Haeckel’s Law (biogenetic law, or “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”), but only muddies and confuses an already complex debate. The many reasonable criticisms of Haeckel’s research and theorizing are blown out of proportion until they are distorted. One would believe that Haeckel’s theory was still an important part of biological research. This sign is the most intemperate of only a few that actually become active in their criticism. Most exhibits are gentle and nonconfrontational in their tone, which is what would be expected of instruction aimed at children. One seeking fire and brimstone would have to look elsewhere.

The middle of the bottom floor of the center is a sandpit with toy shovels and pails so that younger children can dig up fossil replicas. The pit is surrounded on three sides by glass cases at waist height that include fossil replicas and signs with scurrilous information denigrating geology, chemistry, and evolution. Particularly notable are the two models in the case directly next to the entrance of the “Fossil Dig.” One dramatizes a scene from the Old English epic poem Beowulf (an inexpensive Dover Books edition of the poem is for sale in the bookstore.) The plaque explains that this is one of many examples of dinosaurs living contemporaneously with humans; apparently, Beowulf is a historical documentary and not just a legend. Next to that is a model of a sinking ship with survivors floating in the clear acrylic waves being caused by what appears to be an Ichthyosaurus. The plaque accompanying this model provides a quote from a survivor of a torpedoed English warship, which describes the sea monster he sighted during the chaos. This is only the first example of what will be a much more richly addressed topic in the “Creation Museum”: dinosaurs did not become extinct in an ice age but are the sea and lake monsters that are known as Nessie, Ogopogo, Champ, and so on.

A staircase to the second floor runs along the back of the “Fossil Dig.” The staircase is decorated with an installation that has more than three dozen different kinds of scissors attached to it and declares itself to be “The Phylogenetic Tree: Scissor Evolution?” The second floor is much smaller and contains a few computers and television/VCR combos to peruse the CD-ROM and video library offered there. Small posters illustrating various aspects of evolution and geology decorate the walls of the second floor. They are printed with what appears to be a red-ink stamp that declares each of these tenets of scientific research a “Lie.” In the midst of these posters, Haeckel is invoked again and a small flame of outrage jets up briefly. The text on one poster insists that embryos never grow gills and that abortions are killing human beings, not fish. There is also a detailed model of Noah’s Ark.

The third floor is considerably smaller than the two other floors and is a recreation room with a television, board games, and an air-hockey table. The table is scattered with pamphlets for the park, Bibles, and many copies of Chick cartoon tracts that rail against evolution.

The tour moves on to the “Creation Museum,” which directly adjoins the main building and has a fiberglass T. rex dramatically bursting through the wall above the museum’s entry door. The first room of the museum greets you with a large heirloom Bible opened to Genesis. The room also houses a collection of several small animals (a Madagascar hissing cockroach, a ruby tarantula, chinchillas, etc.) whose complexities are alleged to be sterling examples of deficiencies in evolution that serve to disprove Darwin’s science and demonstrate the superiority of creation science.

The next room is a small theatre where one can watch a videocassette that explains Hovind’s grand vision of biblical creation, a young earth, and so forth. Directly above the large-screen television is a sign that says: “Reality! Evolution is a religion.” The back of the theater consists of two large, glass display cases, one that addresses the many ways in which the Noachian Flood created the modern world and the other devoted to explaining that dragons are not mythology but instead accurate reports of dinosaurs living among humans.

The third and final room of the museum is a collection of fossils, including a plaster cast (under glass with muted lights, as if it was truly a fragile antiquity and not a painted plaster casting) that purports to be from a thirteen-foot-tall human giant that was unearthed in California in 1883. This, coupled with other anecdotes and photos of other modern-age giants (Robert Wadlow, et al.), leads to an assertion that biblical accounts of giants were indeed factual. The room also contains a collection of replica fossils both real and fraudulent (including replicas of the Ica Stones and Paluxy dinosaur/man tracks). The room resembles a cramped version of a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum.

Dinosaurs and Deception

Dinosaur Adventure Land is deceptive on many levels. It is obviously wrong about its claims of a scientific explanation of the origins of life on Earth based on the Book of Genesis. But it is also deceptive in its manner and methods. Much of the park contains little more than playground equipment, exhibits, and activities one would find at a real science education center for children. These rather commonplace activities are dressed up in a dinosaur drag that has no real point except to act as a come-on, a lure to children and families that might otherwise stray away. A plain creationist museum would serve to attract only the already converted, acting as an echo chamber so that they might have their ideas repeated back to them. To attach a bunch of silly dinosaur names to playground equipment and stick fiberglass dinosaur parts here and there is the beginning of an effective marketing ploy. The realization that there really isn’t anything much dinosaur about it comes only after you have paid your admission and been subjected to a lengthy bath of proselytizing.

The proselytizing is very carefully scripted. Such a script is necessary because the connections between the games and activities and biblical doctrine are virtually nonexistent. The lesson signs are usually too high for any but the tallest of children to read, and the kids probably wouldn’t read them anyway. The guides are always there, always polite and always present, repeating the message. The message needs to be emphasized in this way because the items in the science center and museum are so scattered and diffuse that they never really add up to an effective argument. Here you will find some confounding assertions about granite and polonium halos; there a sign calls Darwin a liar. Here’s a display telling you that sea monsters are real; there a beach ball floats on a shaft of air generated by a fan. Curatorially speaking, the place is a disaster.

Dinosaur Adventure Land is just a playground tricked out with dinosaur dressage to attract an audience that can then be enticed, seduced, and eventually duped into accepting superstitions, pseudoscience, and plain nonsense passed off with a patina of both scientific and religious authority.

Acknowledgement

I thank Susan McLaughlin and Toria Martinez for their invaluable assistance in the researching and writing of this article. I also thank Barry Karr for his help and support.

References

Greg Martinez

Greg Martinez lives and writes in Gainesville, Florida.