As I pull off the Stonewall Jackson Highway and into the parking lot of Dinosaur Land, I notice a couple taking photos near the park’s sign. One of them is clutching what appears to be a live lizard. They tell me that they’re on a cross country road trip with their pet bearded dragon and a stop at Dinosaur Land’s “educational prehistoric forest” seemed to make sense.
I’ll never know just what—if anything—the little lizard thought of Dinosaur Land’s more than 50 “replicas of the past,” but the couple leaves happy. I see them one more time, near the exit, and offer to take their photo. They pose next to a small dinosaur whose arms are outstretched, and act as though they’re being attacked. “This is going to be our Christmas card,” they say.
For more than 50 years, people driving past this busy corner in northern Virginia have felt similarly compelled to stop. Maybe it’s because of the three dinosaurs that surround the park’s sign or maybe it’s the gift shop’s eye-catching entrance, which is inside of a dinosaur’s gaping mouth. Drivers coming from the south may be lured in by the large, white wooden Gothic letters spelling out “Dinosaur Land,” flanked by a large octopus, saber tooth tiger, and another small dinosaur.
But make no mistake: This is not the East Coast version of Hollywood or Disneyland. At Dinosaur Land, visitors are invited to “step into the world of the prehistoric past, turning back the pages of time to the Mesozoic era, when dinosaurs were the only creatures that roamed the Earth.”
Good for business
It’s true that visitors will feel out of time in Dinosaur Land—in more ways than one. With more than 50 statues of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, the Mesozoic era is well-represented here, but overall, the park and its sizable gift shop feel more like a portal back to the 1960s. There have been a few additions and updates, but the classic roadside attraction has remained more or less unchanged since 1963 when Joe Geraci opened the gift shop and restaurant that would morph into Dinosaur Land.
Local lore says that this corner—where Virginia State Route 277 crosses U.S. Route 522—was once owned by a woman who charged Union General Philip Sheridan and his troops to cross over her land during the Civil War. To pay homage to this gesture, Geraci, who was born in New York City but moved to Virginia with the military, named his shop the Rebel Korn’r.
While he was attending a trade show in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Geraci became enamored with Jim Sidwell’s handmade fiberglass dinosaurs, which once populated putt putt golf courses up and down the East Coast. He bought five, hoping to draw attention to his store, and it worked. In 1967, Geraci renamed the attraction Dinosaur Land.
Why dinosaurs? “Money,” says Terry Leight, Geraci’s grandson. Decades before the Jurassic Park franchise, dinosaurs were seen as a novelty. “Other than the Flintstones, there wasn’t much dinosaur stuff around,” Leight says.
Sensing an opportunity, Geraci commissioned dinosaur toys so visitors could take home a piece of Dinosaur Land. He printed so many copies of an educational book in the early ‘70s that it’s still available in the gift shop for its original price of 75 cents (two of Geraci’s grandchildren, dressed in fabulous ‘60s dresses, pose with the dinosaurs in a photo that appears on the back cover of the book and on postcards).
Animatronics and funky fur
Geraci kept adding to his collection throughout the years, and about 35 of the dinosaurs on display today are Sidwell originals. The rest are newer additions made by fiberglass wizard and Willy Wonka-of-roadside-attractions Mark Cline (Sidwell died in the 1980s). A few of the original statues were animated or had fur, but after a wooly mammoth’s trunk was stolen, Geraci decided to stick to the basics. “We unanimated him,” says Leight. The fur also had to go. “It got funky after a while,” he says. “Paint is much more durable.”
The juxtaposition of Sidwell’s strangely endearing dinos next to Cline’s more modern creations illustrates changes in both fads and facts over the years. Leight says that Sidwell went to museums for inspiration, but at the time, “most people thought all dinosaurs looked like alligators—they really knew nothing. What [Sidwell] knew was one percent of what they know now.”
Sidwell made each of his creations by hand, covering wooden frames with wire mesh and fiberglass. Modern visitors who grew up with hyper-realistic dinosaurs may laugh at the goofy faces on some of Sidwell’s creatures, but I find it refreshing that Dinosaur Land has had little interest in keeping up with the Joneses (or the Dr. John Hammonds).
Leight says that most of Sidwell’s creations have required very little maintenance in the past 50 years. They’ve been power washed, but most have never been repainted. Because all of the creatures sit outside year round, the greatest threat to them is severe weather. The heavily-wooded landscape provides some protection, but within the last year, a tree felled by an ice storm sliced an Oviraptor in half. “When a limb breaks off we can repair them,” Leight says. “They’re very durable. But there’s not much you can do when a tree completely crushes one.”
In the 1970s, someone crashed their car into the Brachiosaurus out front and Geraci installed a guard rail. Tired of vandals attempting to steal his beloved creatures, Geraci moved most of them behind a barbed wire-topped fence. “Not to keep people out,” Leight clarifies. “But to keep the dinosaurs in.”
A caveman who disappeared did eventually turn up in the basement of a fraternity house at Shepherd University in West Virginia—a little worse for the wear. “We picked him up and let’s just say, he’d been to one too many parties,” Leight says.
Survival of the fittest
Dinosaur Land is, and has always been, a family-run business. Geraci’s daughters still run the park and most of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren have worked among the giants at some point in their lives. The park is open every day except Christmas from March until the end of December. The Geracis used to live behind the gift shop, but now the building is used for storage. “It’s an apartment for dinosaurs,” Leight says.
The prehistoric theme is more of a guideline than a rule, and not all of the species represented at Dinosaur Land are extinct. In front of a huge, pink octopus is a giant shark. The motley menagerie also includes a king cobra and a towering King Kong-style ape. Horror characters such as Dracula and the Mummy were removed after they were deemed too terrifying for small children.
“My grandfather loved scaring kids,” Leight says—but Geraci’s wicked streak didn’t have an age limit. “Grandma hated praying mantises. She was petrified, so of course he made one.” (It’s still there.)
Leight says that the park is “for kids of all ages,” and as people who went to Dinosaur Land as children grow up, they return with their own family members—human or otherwise. Although the park has a “no pets” policy, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. As I witnessed firsthand, people can’t resist introducing lizards, rabbits, and even parrots to their prehistoric cousins. Couples come to take engagement and wedding photos, and diplomats come from Washington D.C. (less than a two-hour drive) to mingle with the dinos. “It’s an interesting, international crowd,” Leight says.
Dinosaur Land also has a “no touching” policy with frequent signs reminding visitors that climbing the creatures is prohibited. But there are plenty of holiday card photo opportunities, even if every display is not exactly wholesome. Dinosaur Land has several battle scenes, complete with painted blood and gore. In one, a Giganotosaurus grabs a Pteranodon out of the air, clamping its jaws around the struggling winged lizard.
Unlike the Pteranodon, Dinosaur Land has managed to survive despite the aggressive march of time and changing tastes. Real dinosaurs may have gone extinct, but Sidwell and Cline’s creations have endured through storms, car accidents, and decades of energetic children.
Many similar parks have come and gone since Geraci turned back the pages of time to attract attention to his corner shop, but Dinosaur Land is here to stay. Leight says that the park may have been the first of its kind—and because his family has no intention of closing the book anytime soon, it may also end up being the last.
If you go
Dinosaur Land is open March 1 through December 31 and closed on Christmas Day. Hours vary by season.