by Cole Richard
Cole Richard is a junior from Orlando, Florida double majoring in English and Italian Studies and minoring in Linguistics. This is his first summer working on the Race & Racism project. He is also a resident assistant, DJ at the campus radio station, and student worker at the music library.
Having grown up a frequent visitor of Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, I have fond memories of walking through the mythic arched gateway to Jurassic Park. The iconic logo flanked on either side by torches that are lit no matter the time of day; the surrounding flora that somehow feels more prehistoric than regular Florida vegetation. Walking under that arch, a whimsical transportation takes place and you feel, if just for a moment, that you’ve really stepped into Jurassic Park.
From the road, Dinosaur Kingdom II, an attraction outside of Lexington, Virginia, strikes a similar chord. The design of its stone archway evokes that of Jurassic Park while drawing inspiration from the nearby Natural Bridge (an important location to the park’s fabricated narrative). The attraction’s entrance trades the pyrotechnics and immersive foliage of Spielberg’s masterpiece for a Tyrannosaurus Rex, bursting through a railroad car, about to eat to Union soldier.
Before entering Dinosaur Kingdom II, I thought I had a good idea of what I was going to see. I knew that it was a fiberglass sculpture-based attraction that asked a very simple and intriguing question: what if the Confederacy had dinosaurs? Standing beside the archway to enter the park, I learned it wasn’t quite that simple. The Confederacy doesn’t control the dinosaurs, well not until Confederate General Stonewall Jackson — who faked his own death — manages to wrangle them with his robot arm (more on this later). No, as a sign placed under the entrance details, the dinosaurs (which had been hibernating in the Natural Bridge Caverns) were awakened by Union soldiers’ cannon fire. The Union then sought to “use these giant reptiles as WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION against the South.”
In light of this, the continued comparison to Jurassic Park is an interesting analytical lens. In Jurassic Park, humanity’s folly, embodied by entrepreneur John Hammond, is in thinking they can control the natural world. But as we all know, “life finds a way,” and when the park is crippled by a tropical storm, the dinosaurs break free and run the humans off the island. In Dinosaur Kingdom II, creator Mark Cline presents a similar story. However, Cline positions the Union army as the attraction’s John Hammond, highlighting the North’s ineptitude in failing to control the beasts they had awakened. And although “life finds a way,” Mother Nature ultimately proves no match for Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, who is able to control the dinos with his robot arm.
Mark Cline has constructed an impressively complex narrative for his attraction, one that includes a time traveling scientist, mysterious slime creatures, and an unexplained bigfoot cameo. The gist of the story is presented in the first area of the attraction, a quaint mining town that has been overrun with dinosaurs. Inside the building dubbed the “Slime Theatre,” runs a 10 minute looping Ken Burns-esque video. In it, Cline plays an alternate version of himself, Dr. Mark Cline, a Civil War historian who seeks to educate people about the forgotten battle of Natural Bridge and the dinosaurs involved. Dr. Cline informs viewers that Gettysburg gets too much credit as the turning point of the Civil War, because the war would have been over much sooner if the Union hadn’t been so incompetent in their handling of the dinosaurs, saving thousands of lives on both sides. Another character in the video, the daughter of Confederate paleontologists, recounts how her parents pleaded with the Union to not disturb the dinosaurs, but the strong headed Northerners refused to listen. A man beside me in the theatre, one of only two other visitors, remarked that the video presented a “new version of the Lost Cause.”
Cline denies feeling sympathy for the Confederacy, saying that if he had made his park at a proposed site in Gettysburg the sides would be flipped, since “[The South] wouldn’t have been heroes up there.” Cline claims then that his park’s narrative is a product of its location, not his personal attitude. I find this hard to believe, as the scale and brutality of what he has constructed seem to surpass a mere pandering to regional sympathies. In the documentary, Dr. Cline notes that the dinosaurs killed Union and Confederate soldiers indiscriminately, yet there are no sculptures of Confederate troops being threatened or killed by dinosaurs (besides the triumphant Jackson). Instead, when walking through the main segment of the park, I was overwhelmed by the sheer variety of depictions of Union soldiers being attacked: a mother Triceratops pushing a soldier off a minecart, a maimed Dilophosaurus standing menacingly over a soldier groveling towards his rifle, a two-headed tortoise sabotaging a bridge with dynamite, Abraham Lincoln attempting to restrain a Pterodactyl escaping with the “Gettysburg Chat” in its mouth. None of the sculptures are designed to elicit sympathy for the Union, instead depicting the humans in danger as spiteful and inept.
As I exited the park, a final sculpture waved goodbye: Mark Cline, holding one of his slime creatures with one hand and lifting a paintbrush in his outstretched other, an obvious riff on the famous Partners statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, found at several Disney theme parks. On the way out, a sign provides the final narrative touch, reading: “This episode of the Civil War was so humiliating for the Union, they left it out of the history books. But now you know the TRUTH behind DINOSAUR KINGDOM II.” This theme of Northern humiliation persists throughout the park and is particularly resonant due to its location just 15 minutes from the Virginia Military Institute, which was burned by the Union.
For some, the alternate history Dinosaur Kingdom II presents is a seductive one, despite its ridiculousness. The park presents an opportunity to laugh at a fictional instance of Union military incompetence while downplaying the significance of their actual victory of Gettysburg, which halted Lee’s invasion of the North. At the same time sources of Confederate embarrassment are revised. Stonewall Jackson, who infamously lost his arm — and eventually his life — due to friendly fire is instead reworked to have faked his own death. His missing arm becomes a source of strength, not shame, as it allows him to equip the all-powerful robot arm, allowing him to defeat the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Though the presence of dinosaurs seems at first random, in truth, it allows the park to make a much more sinister argument: that in “The War of Northern Aggression,” the Union repeatedly disturbed the natural order of the world — the South as an independent state with legalized slavery — and should have just let sleeping dinos lie.