Tennessee: Discovery Park of America

By Adrian Sainz

New museum aims to put Northwest Tennessee on the tourist map.

The gleaming white building with curved exteriors and a spaceship-like tower emerges from the flat landscape of West Tennessee like something out of science fiction, but it's not a villain's lair or superhero's headquarters.

It's Discovery Park of America, a new museum, education center and tourist attraction.

With exhibits about natural and regional history, dinosaurs, Native Americans, energy, transportation, science, the military and space flight, the museum can be described as a mini-Smithsonian Institution.

There's an earthquake simulator, a 36-metre glass-encased observation tower and a 15-metre metal replica of the human body that includes a 10-metre slide.

The 20-hectare complex also boasts an old train depot, a century-old church and flower gardens, plus enough land for outdoor events and future expansion.

Union City resident Robert Kirkland, who built a fortune with a chain of home decor stores and smart investments, shelled out US$80 million to build the museum. He plans to keep the exhibits fresh and unique with a $3 million annual investment.

Museum operators and local officials are hoping Discovery Park will bolster the economy in a region of rural America hit hard by job losses, floods, droughts and a tough economy.

"Northwest Tennessee needs a venue," said Discovery Park of America CEO Jim Rippy.

"East Tennessee's got Dollywood. Nashville's got the music, Memphis has got the music. What we're trying to do is develop an educational vacation, a place for children and families."

Discovery Park of America is actually built on a cornfield. It sits near Interstate 55, U.S. Highway 51 and the unfinished Interstate 69 corridor.

Once inside Discovery Park, visitors go down an elevator or escalator to a brightly-lit, three-level atrium. The escalator itself is a learning experience; its mechanism is encased in glass so visitors can see how it works.

Dinosaur skeletons are set up in the atrium room. There are exhibits with Native American artefacts and a room filled with classic and historic cars, including a limousine owned by the early 20th century comedian W.C. Fields.

The military section showcases items from the Civil War and the two World Wars. A large hall has a Stearman PT-17 biplane suspended in the air, a tribute to military pilots trained at a nearby airfield.

Other exhibits have regional ties, such as a 76,000-litre aquarium featuring living creatures from nearby Reelfoot Lake.

Visitors who toured Discovery Park before its opening commented on the attention to detail. Handwriting can still be seen in soldiers' Civil War journals, and concise descriptions accompany exhibits of old record players and photo equipment, like a Brownie Target Six-20 Box Camera.

One intriguing feature is a theatre that simulates the violent 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes, which re-formed the region's topography.

A children's section includes the "Crawlers Cove" for infants and the "Fantasy Forrest" for toddlers. There are plans to have concerts and other special events on the property.

For Kirkland, Discovery Park is, first and foremost, an educational venue. Any tourist dollars are a welcomed bonus, he said.

"Surely, if they can get a few folks going down south and get them to see an alligator farm in Florida, we can get them to see Discovery Park", he said.

IF YOU GO

Discovery Park of America: 830 Everett Boulevard, Union City, Tennessee.

Getting there: From Memphis, about 185 kilometers; from Nashville, about 300 kilometers; from St. Louis, about 320 kilometers.

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