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American Roadside Attraction 'Dinosaur Land' Lures Visitors

  • Deborah Block

A big part of the American landscape of the middle 20th century was the roadside attraction - small zoos, amusement parks or quirky museums along the highways families traveled on their way to vacation destinations. Most of those attractions are gone, but one in Virginia, a couple of hours from Washington, called Dinosaur Land, is still going strong.

On a sunny afternoon, kids are enjoying looking at the dozens of dinosaurs, large and small, that are posed around the park. Adults who came here as youngsters now bring their own children. As he watched his daughter marvel at the creature towering over her, Brian Beck recalled his childhood impressions of the dinosaurs.

“They were larger than life. I’ve grown up loving dinosaurs because of this place,” he said.

A family business

Dinosaur Land began 51 years ago as a roadside gift shop. Joseph Geraci displayed a huge wooly mammoth outside as a gimmick to lure in customers driving past. Then he added prehistoric beasts next to the shop and gave it the name it has today. When Geraci passed away in 1987, family members, including his daughter Joann Leight, took over the business.

Leight is proud that four generations have worked at the park, including her grandson John, who grew up with Dinosaur Land, and says it hasn't changed much.

“We try to keep the old America feel around here. It’s not meant to be a museum. We’re meant to be a roadside attraction. We like for people to just stop by,” he explained.

That's what Hannah Pascucci did. She writes a travel blog about the state of Virginia.

“It’s run down, but still very popular,” she observed. “This is kind of in the middle of nowhere.”

Over the years, the park has added newer dinosaurs that look more realistic. Each one is created on a wooden frame, surrounded by wire and fiberglass, and then painted.

Joann Leight said, “Even though they don’t move, they’re not animated, the kids are still really fascinated with them because they are life size.”

World-class gift shop

Dinosaur Land’s gift shop was recently named one of the 10 best places to buy souvenirs in the United States. Its shelves are crowded with everything from animal figurines to four-million-year-old ocean fossils. And of course, lots of dinosaurs, including popular small plastic toys.

“The movement of their mouth gives them a more realistic feel,” John Leight said as he demonstrated the action. “Their scales are uniquely and artistically drawn and painted to give them a more lizard-like feel.”

Darci Rampino, who first came to the park as a little girl, looks at the toys with nostalgia.

Tourist Nathan Bright enjoys looking at vintage postcards -- photos of children with the dinosaurs in the 1970s. They are relatives of the park owners.

“It would be a novelty just to send that out to someone because they’ll think it got lost in the mail for decades,” he said.

Joann Leight says today Dinosaur Land is getting more visitors than ever.

“Now we do a lot of advertisement on the interstates,” she explained. “Each year it keeps growing.”

David Price is continuing a family tradition by bringing his children to Dinosaur Land.

“Here I am, 30 years later, doing it all over again. I’d like to see it stay for another 100 years,” he said.

John Leight hopes his family can continue his great-grandfather’s legacy, so the park doesn’t disappear like the dinosaurs.