Hiking, dinosaurs and antiques bring in visitors

Jon Peter, 5, of Rochester, N.Y., cools off in the Splashpad of The Dinosaur Place at Nature's Art Village in Montville.
Jon Peter, 5, of Rochester, N.Y., cools off in the Splashpad of The Dinosaur Place at Nature's Art Village in Montville.

A man-made lake, artificial mines, simulations of gold-panning and paleontological digs, walking paths studded with life-size dinosaur statues, antique technologies, and more.

"Actually, there isn't much I'm not interested in," said Nature's Art Village owner Roger Phillips.

And that's exactly the impression you would get from the village, which was just a gravel quarry in 1992 and is now 60 acres of an educational mission and burgeoning commercial empire for Phillips.

Perhaps the best established portion of the village is the Dinosaur Place, where visitors are greeted by Monty the Tyrannosaurus rex, named for Montville, in the parking lot.

Inside the Dinosaur Place's park, families encounter dinosaur sculptures with explanatory plaques. They also encounter playgrounds and the pun-tacularly named "A 'maze' asaurus," which ends in a T.rex mouth through which children slide.

Kitsch is key at Dinosaur Place, but it doesn't obscure Phillips' educational agenda for the place or village as a whole.

Phillips said he is focused on teaching children about the past by exposing them to artifacts. As an example, he said he planned to bring in a rotary pay phone for children to play with.

"There is an incredible amount of history and knowledge in this village," said Phillips.

Staff and visitors alike learn on site.

"I learn something new pretty much every day," said Dinosaur Place marketing director Jake Orenstein, explaining that he didn't know a lot about dinosaurs before.

He commented after describing the park's new animatronic dilophosaurus, "My spelling abilities are not great. I definitely have to double check things, but they're definitely getting better."

The attraction, which has an indoor portion in addition to the park, is a local staple but also draws in out-of-town tourists.

"I'd say we get a lot of draw from Long Island and New York," said village marketing director Jake Orenstein.

One morning last week, a Williamsport, Pa., family was taking advantage of a playground in the park area. It was part of the end of a vacation that took the family on tour throughout New England.

"We are always looking for just different places that will be fun for the kids," said Michelle Ferguson, who was visiting with her husband and two young daughters. She noted that her daughters love dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are just the beginning for the park, which opened in 2000. Not even the beginning, really. The beginning goes deeper and further back in time, to a gravel quarry in 1992.

The quarry became a man-made lake, now called Raptor Bay. Phillips paired with the lake a building that now houses activities like simulations of mining, gold-panning and paleontological digs.

Everything comes back to minerals for Phillips' venture. Dinosaurs came into play after Phillips and his wife Linda paid a visit to Arizona for a mineral show, where they encountered a 4-foot tall Apatosaurus tibia - basically, a really big dinosaur shinbone - that they ended up bringing home and that they still keep in a fossil and mineral shop.

Minerals also led Phillips to pursue an interest in antique mining equipment and other old machines. The machines play a prominent role in Phillips' new antique museum, called The Past. The first portion of The Past opened in 2013.

Walking through his ever-growing creation, Phillips, a former developer, is always quick to share an educational tidbit.

He points out a mold based on an aquatic dinosaur specimen found in 1909 during what Phillips referred to as the golden age of dinosaur remains excavation and kept at the University of Kansas.

"He was very fast, very strong, and he would bit you up in one bite," Phillips explained, interjecting a slurping sound. "And you'd be gone."



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