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Dinosaur kingdom returns from extinction in Natural Bridge

Dinosaur Kingdom II

Dale and Helen Moore of St. Michael, Maryland, finish their journey through Mark Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom II, “Back from Extinction,” in Natural Bridge.

NATURAL BRIDGE — The roars of prehistoric monsters sounded from behind the towering barrier made from wooden poles.

Or perhaps they were pre-recorded growls played on a nonstop loop. Regardless, they blended with the genuine bleats and cries coming from the certifiable real animals housed at Natural Bridge Zoo, just across the road.

The man responsible for the building of that barrier, Mark Cline, wearing his trademark fedora, stuck to his story that sunny June morning as he surveyed the wooden wall, which resembles the one constructed by Skull Island villagers to keep out King Kong. “Something huge is kept behind here,” he said.

If you’re wondering what, the name of the park, “Dinosaur Kingdom II,” kind of gives it away. So does the park entrance, a caboose car with a life-size fiberglass dinosaur bursting through the roof in pursuit of a life-size fiberglass Civil War-era Union soldier brandishing a sword.

If the sights and sounds have the effect Cline hopes for, “your adrenaline starts in the parking lot.”

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Cline, 58, has achieved legendary status among those who appreciate kitschy roadside attractions. A Google search for Cline’s name on RoadsideAmerica.com produces dozens on dozens of hits. His best-known creation might be Foamhenge, a life-size replica of Stonehenge made from Styrofoam blocks that stands in Centreville. Another Stonehenge replica made from fiberglass looms in Elberta, Alabama. Cline dubbed it Bamahenge.

“I’m probably the only man in history who’s built two full-sized replicas of Stonehenge,” he said.

At Dinosaur Kingdom II, Cline’s imagination runs wild over 16 acres. Bigfoot snarls from a door. Slime monsters slide by windows to glower. Immense dinosaur ribs and jaws form the arches over a walkway. A Native American sees a vision in the wide dorsal fin of a dinosaur. A short Ken Burns-style mockumentary offers a solemn-voiced explanation for the sauropod-on-Union-soldier carnage the park portrays.

One of the first of the lurid displays along the path tells a mini-story. First, visitors see a severed dinosaur foot caught in a bear trap. Then comes a tableau of a Union soldier about to be mauled by a one-legged dinosaur. A nearby stand sports a QR code that, when scanned via cellphone app, opens a video depicting the events leading up to the attack in glorious bargain basement B-movie detail, with Cline himself portraying the dinosaur’s victim.

“I’m trying to take roadside to a whole new level,” Cline said. “This is not your father’s dinosaur park.”

Dinosaur Kingdom II

A converted motel room becomes a playroom for baby dinosaurs in Mark Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom II in Natural Bridge.

Monsters on the move

Visitors from Roanoke who attended “Blue Ridge Barnum,” the 2012 exhibition at the Taubman Museum of Art devoted to Cline’s work, will likely recognize a number of sculptures on display, such as the bizarre half-chicken, half Frankenstein’s monster that lurches with arms upraised in the lot outside the park.

That same year, a fire destroyed the Haunted Monster Museum, the attraction Cline used to maintain in what’s now Natural Bridge State Park. It was the second time he had lost one of his tourist attractions to a fire — his Enchanted Castle Studio in the town of Natural Bridge burned down in 2001 and had to be rebuilt.

No cause was ever determined, though dry weather conditions contributed to several fires in the Shenandoah Valley, Cline said. Upsetting as the loss of the monster museum was, he waxes philosophical about it now. “Anything can happen to anyone at any time. None of us are immune. P.T. Barnum had three fires. I’m one behind him.”

Cline would have had to move his monsters anyway, he said, as Natural Bridge transitioned to a state park, just like he had to find a new home for Foamhenge.

The original Dinosaur Kingdom occupied about an acre of land beside the museum, the idea being “you have something to entertain you while you’re waiting.” The fire left the dinosaurs untouched. “We gathered all of them up and brought ’em to a ‘hibernation place,’ so to speak, and then when I had an opportunity to build this, we brought them out of extinction.”

Past the entrance, behind the wall lies a motel that’s been converted into an abandoned mining town — named Extinction Junction — that Cline has rigged with animatronic creatures and optical tricks. One device, a sealed wooden box, invites the curious to stick their hand through a hole, with an unseen dinosaur supposedly lurking on the other side. Participants get a startle but come away unharmed, though maybe a little damp.

“This is the only dinosaur park in the world where you can feed the dinosaurs,” Cline said as he activated a machine. High above, a fake pig appeared, dangling from a conveyor belt. The “pig” disappeared behind a wall, dinosaur chomping sounded, then the “pig” reappeared as a neatly cleaned “skeleton.”

Neither town nor park contains dinosaurs only. There’s even a mundane stage where Cline hopes to book concerts, starting in the fall. “I see 100 more things that I’d like to do,” he said.

One room is meant to be a cartoonish version of a dentist’s office. This past week, Cline finished an exhibit for that particular room that works like an oversize version of the children’s board game “Operation,” except the players remove bones, brains, hearts and — ulp! — worms from a dinosaur. He wrote, with evident glee, “If you hit it in the side, it will growl like Godzilla.”

In 2018, a feature about Dinosaur Kingdom II aired on HBO, though in the sort of zany twist that seems to fit Cline’s life story, the interview examined the park through a critical political lens. Tied into the ongoing controversy over Confederate monuments, the Vice News clip bears the headline “Inside the weird dinosaur park where the South defeats the Union army.”

For what it’s worth, nerdy nitpicks with that characterization are in order. The off-the-wall storyline behind the events portrayed in Cline’s park, and also portrayed in the “Dinosaur Kingdom II” comic book, which Cline wrote and drew, imagines a humorous time travel mishap that sends a cluster of dinosaurs forward in time to the Civil War. The dinos are captured by Union forces, who try to train them to act as weapons of war against the Confederacy. The plan backfires as the animals turn on their masters. “Jurassic World”-style carnage ensues. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the legend of the Beale treasure, a pair of cavemen and slime monsters from the future are also involved. The entire episode stays secret and has no effect on the outcome of the war.

In the Vice News clip, Cline refers to Confederate monuments as “second place trophies.”

“This park is not a political statement,” he said. “War in itself is ridiculous.”

Dinosaur Kingdom II

The interior of a slanted building inside Extinction Junction in Dinosaur Kingdom II.

Not done building

Cline says he has two full-time jobs. One is running his park. The other is fabricating fanciful fiberglass sculptures, for which he has become a go-to guy, building fiberglass creations for golf courses, restaurants and occasionally, eccentric billionaires, such as the “Lady in the Lake” floating sculpture made for Alabama businessman George Barber.

In a recent phone text, Cline wrote, “I am just now sending a man a quote on 25-foot giant cop.” In the accompanying drawing, the Paul Bunyan-size policeman gripped an enormous radar gun.

Cline also has a part-time job, as he puts it, conducting weekend ghost tours in nearby Lexington. His wife, Sherry, manages the family business. “If it wasn’t for her, none of this would have happened,” he said. “She makes sure the ship is floating.”

They have two grown daughters, Sunny, a registered nurse, and Jenna, still in college. “As a parent, I believe it’s important to encourage our children to follow their own paths and not try to make clones out of them.” That said, his daughters have pitched in with social media promotion. “My daughters are my best PR people.”

Dinosaur Kingdom II opened in 2016. Three years later, “it’s at a point where I feel comfortable with where it should be,” Cline said.

He’s not done building. His ambitions include constructing a school where he can teach his fiberglass techniques.

“Mark is a very unique person to work for,” said Pam Lotts, 62. A school cafeteria worker in Glasgow, she operates the Dinosaur Kingdom II gift shop while it’s open during the summer. “I call this my fun job.”

Her favorite contraption in the park, she said, is the park’s final exhibit. “I like the T-Rex at the end in the johnny house.”

Inside this last outhouse, when children took a seat and pushed a button, an immense Tyrannosaurus Rex head leaned down to regard them through a screen, and roar at them — while parents and grandparents snapped photos.

Afterward at the gift shop, Cline signed T-shirts for a family group from Maryland. Helen Moore said that after her eldest grandson got his shirt signed, he asked to have it framed. Cline “might be like Walt Disney someday,” she said.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

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