Whether you're holidaying at home or visiting Auckland for the last week of the school holidays, take your children to where the wild things are. Danielle Wright checks out dinosaur-themed activities in Auckland.
To get a feel for what it was like when dinosaurs roamed the earth, head to the new Dinosaur Kingdom at Butterfly Creek to see life-size animatronic models. Walking around with the now-extinct creatures towering over you is humbling, and noisy.
Between the Butterfly Creek train and Buttermilk Farm, cross a bridge to enter a dinosaur wonderland with more than 30 dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus Rex and his alleged "great-great-grandfather" Allosaurus, as well as the ocean-dwelling Plesiosaur, who laid its eggs in beach sand like a sea turtle.
The models are life-like with wrinkles, sagging skin and sharp teeth which are soft to touch. There are a few photo opportunities around the exhibit - you can walk through a dinosaur's spongy mouth with wobbly teeth or have a picture taken in a golf cart in front of a menacing T-Rex.
If you're on the Butterfly Creek train or climbing on the Rocket Ropes course, you'll get a special sneak peek of the dinosaurs. You'll have to buy a ticket for the display room though, showcasing fossils, bones, eggs and skeletal replicas. Children can even climb on to one of the dinosaurs for a ride or try a dinosaur bone excavation.
"We're closer to the last living dinosaur than the first dinosaur was to the last," says Butterfly Creek general manager John Dowsett, who had the idea for the display just 18 months ago. "Apart from the incredible and lengthy dinosaur history we showcase, people will be most surprised at the sheer size of the dinosaurs."
• Dinosaur Kingdom at Butterfly Creek, Tom Pearce Drive, Auckland Airport. Family Pass $73, adults $27, kids $16 (under-3s free).
Price includes butterflies, crocodiles, alligators, farm animals, bugs, monkeys, aquarium and Dinosaur Kingdom. It doesn't include the train and there's no Dinosaur Kingdom-only option.
Dinosaurs on screen
See the dinosaurs come to life at a safe distance in Walking with Dinosaurs in cinemas now. Created by BBC Earth, it's a classic tale of the runt of the litter overcoming its lack of strength to become the hero of the story due to sheer power of spirit. Of course, there's a love story on the side, too. It's Hollywood-corny but the scenery is worth watching and, although it has violent undertones, it's wasn't frightening for my children.
For a different kind of dinosaur movie, rent 2012's animated Dino Time voiced by Glee's Jane Lynch, as well as Stephen Baldwin and Melanie Griffith. It's perfect for younger kids. It features a skateboarding 'tween hero, his loyal friend and a tattletale little sister time-travelling back to the dinosaur age.
The LeapPad Ultra kids' tablet also features a search category about dinosaurs. There are videos about herbivores and animated clips about different types of dinosaurs. There's also a clip about the demise of dinosaurs that features some interesting theories, which will make the kids laugh.
Dinosaurs at the Museum
Put the dinosaur era into a New Zealand perspective with a visit to the museum's Origins exhibit. No complete dinosaur bones have been found in New Zealand but isolated bones have been discovered in Hawke's Bay and Port Waikato. The dinosaur bones on display though are impressive and there's also an area dedicated to reading the rocks under the earth's surface.
In a manmade cave around the corner you can read about the bones and remains of flightless birds, frogs, reptiles and beetles now extinct, as well as carnivorous land snails as big as a fist.
Later, head to the Weird and Wonderful area where iPads are loaded with dinosaur jigsaw puzzles and quizzes - who knew the word for dinosaur means "terrible lizard" or that some dinosaurs dropped their children at a kind of dinosaur kindergarten for the day?
The gift store is worth a visit for its dinosaur-themed toys, such as colourful evolution bookmarks made of paperclips and T-Rex cookie cutters. A Mummy and Moa trail and selection of activities is also available - see website for times and details.
As we finish our last dinosaur expedition at the museum, my son turns to me and says: "There is actually one dinosaur left in the world - and it's the Loch Ness Monster". Maybe we could plan one more expedition for this story - to the Scottish Highlands.
• Auckland War Memorial Museum, The Auckland Domain, Parnell. Open daily 10am-5pm, free entry for Auckland MyMuseum cardholders, donation invited from New Zealand residents and general admission $25 adults, $10 children or $60 family pass.
Lost in Time Mini Golf
Hamish Fraser and his brother Ollie brought animatronic dinosaurs to Central Auckland last June when they opened their 18-hole mini putt course in Aotea Square's Metro Centre.
We take the rocket-shaped elevator underground and back in time to collect our putt sticks and score cards. First is the war zone with the sounds of gunfire, then a couple of glow-in-the-dark holes where I notice my 5-year-old daughter using her foot to kick the ball in, undetected in the dark by her older brother.
Next are the rainforest holes, featuring one shaped like a kiwi. There's also a water feature and a few animatronic kiwi moving their heads and opening their beaks - it's more action than I've ever seen a live kiwi undertake.
As we leave them behind, we're face-to-face with our first dinosaur encounter - the Ankylosaurus, swinging its tail and head. We hear a deep, growling noise at hole 15 from the Triceratops. The sound is strangely familiar, until we all realise it sounds a bit like dad's snoring.
A giant, cracked egg and a Stegosaurus with a sweeter croon is at the next hole and the last dinosaur is possibly the most famous of all with its fierce teeth and feeble floppy arms: Tyrannosaurus Rex. Game Over.
• Lost in Time Mini Golf, Metro Centre, Sub Level 3, 291-297 Queen St, Auckland City. Adults $15, children $12 or family pass $45. Opening hours 10am-10pm.
Living fossils at the Auckland Zoo
In the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, some 200 million years ago, the Sphenodontia order was well represented. Tuatara belonged to that group and, for the past 60 million years, have been the only remaining species of the order, which gives them the reputation of "living fossils".
The Auckland Zoo has a special enclosure dedicated to these deceptively dangerous-looking reptiles - called "The Islands". Inside are a mix of baby and adult tuatara all happily hiding away on our visit. It's a bit like playing Where's Wally? trying to spot them when they don't want to be seen.
Thankfully, Ectotherm keeper Julie Underwood introduces us to Tipua, a 19-year-old female tuatara with a frog's foolish grin and a crocodile's backside. We feel the spikes down Tipua's back and gaze into her dark glassy eyes. The spikes fall away under our touch.
"People are most surprised at how soft her skin feels," says Underwood.
"The spikes are just for show and aren't sharp at all. If tuataras are scared, they're more likely to freeze than to bite. They have no teeth, just a serrated jaw bone."
Tuatara encounters are held twice a week, currently on Wednesdays and Fridays at midday. A keeper will bring out a tuatara and share facts and stories about this amazing creature, known to live up to 150 years old.
"It's interesting that humans were responsible for their demise in numbers," says Underwood, "but, we also saved them with our successful breeding programmes. If you hear them during a medical examination, they make a croaking, grunting squeal unlike any other animal. There's nothing else quite like them."
• Auckland Zoo, Motions Rd, Western Springs. Summer opening hours are 9.30am-5.30pm daily. Adults $25, children $10 (free under 4), or a family pass (2 adults, 2 children) $63.