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When dinosaurs roam the parks
“Dino Don” brings the prehistoric creatures to midways
Kids go bonkers over dinosaurs. And, of course, they love theme parks. Dinosaurs at theme parks? That’s enough to send any kid into a prehysterical frenzy. It is “Dino” Don Lessem’s mission to incite such fervor.
The guy knows a thing or two about dinosaurs–and theme parks. He’s been excavating and studying the creatures for decades, and he’s been writing books and hosting TV shows to share his fascination of the animals with others, mostly children. As a leading authority on dinosaurs, Lessem’s work led him to “Jurassic Park” author Micheal Chricton and subsequently to Steven Spielberg, whom he advised when the filmmaker turned the book into a blockbuster movie. When Universal was building its Jurassic Park ride at its Hollywood park, he consulted on the attraction and hosted the queue video. Likewise, Disney brought Lessem on board to help plan and develop DinoLand U.S.A. at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Now, as president and CEO of Dino Don, he is using his prowess to design realistic dinosaur animatronics for zoos, theme parks, and other attractions. The company’s first park installation was at Six Flags New England, which opened Dino Off Road Adventure this year.
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The attraction is actually a retrofitted, classic, antique car ride that dates back to 1962, when the pre-Six Flags Massachusetts amusement park was known as Riverside. Originally manufactured by Arrow Development, it is the second-oldest remaining ride in the park after Thunderbolt, a wooden coaster that opened in 1941. The car ride has had a variety of themes through the years and was most recently known as Wild Wheels. For that update, the park switched from antique cars to vehicles that looked like safari Jeeps. Six Flags re-themed the vehicles in house for Dino Off Road Adventure.
Kids still have the thrill of steering the cars and controlling their speeds. But now, they have compelling creatures to ogle as they make their way through the course. Handlers with headsets interact with the guests and impart facts about the animals. Dino Don installed a dozen figures, including a Stegosaurus, raptors, a Pterodactyl, and a mighty T. Rex. The Dilophosaurus is a spitter–no doubt compelling drivers to floor it as they pass the meat-eating behemoth.
The dinos are the first animatronic figures at Six Flags New England. Pete Carmichael, the park’s president, says he is thrilled with the revitalized attraction and that it has become one of the most popular on the midway. He’s especially pleased with the lumbering beasts that delight guests.
“Don brought a lot of expertise about what dinosaurs should look like, how they should move, and a sense of realism,” Carmichael says about the work that Lessem and his team performed.
There are plenty of other prehistoric animals making the rounds out there, but to Lessem’s trained eye, they give him a sense of dino tsuris.
“They look half-sized, they have jerky movements, and they’re noisy,” he says. “They just look dopey.” The would-be dinos’ lack of authenticity does a disservice, Lessem believes. “They deny kids the chance to see the most amazing things that ever walked the earth. It’s what makes them realize how amazing life can be.”
Lessem set out to make his animals more accurate in every detail. And I do mean every detail.
“Ours are the only robots that can fart and pee,” he says as a point of pride. Kids must especially love those features. As if that’s not enough, Lessem notes that he can even incorporate smell generators to add a multi-sensory tag to the bodily functions.
Since introducing his first batch of spot-on dinos at the Bronx Zoo in 2020, Dino Don has brought his creatures to about 50 zoos in six countries, including exhibits in Chicago, Houston, London, and Copenhagen. Now, he wants to target theme parks.
With the success of Dino Off Road Adventure, the park chain has plans in the works to develop something similar at Six Flags Darien Lake in New York and Six Flags Over Texas. Now that Six Flags and Cedar Fair will likely be merging, perhaps a park near you will be featuring the creatures. It would certainly captivate your kids. You, however, may want to consider bringing nose plugs should the gaseous animals do their thing.
What do you think about the concept of Dino Off Road Adventure? In what other ways would you suggest dinosaurs be used at parks?