Discovery Park of America Opens This November in West Tennessee!
Last week, I attended a sneak preview of Discovery Park of America, scheduled to open Nov. 1, 2013 in Union City, Tennessee. (From Memphis, it’s a straight shot northeast up Highway 51, do-able in just over two hours. From Jackson, it’ll only take you an hour and 20 minutes.)
Discovery Park of America seems to me an if-you-build-it-[they]-will-come kind of place – it literally rises from a cornfield in rural West Tennessee. Until now, the area essentially had one main attraction: Reelfoot Lake State Park.
“Regardless of what we’ve been known for in the past, this is what we’ll be known for now,” said Jim Rippy, Discovery Park of America’s CEO, and one of the principal forces behind its realization.
Skeptical? Go see it.
The scope of it alone is enough to surprise you: a 100,000-square-foot “Discovery Center” – stunning in a design of white, curved lines and glass; soaring with a 200-foot observation tower – set amid an outdoor wonderland of full-size train cars; antique buildings (including a centuries-old schoolhouse and gristmill); tens of thousands of plantings organized into themed gardens; water features and a walking trail that meander.
Don’t miss this in the Discovery Center
- Slink past giant skeletons, including a 15-foot-tall, 80-foot-long Apatosaurus, in the main floor atrium (nicknamed Dinosaur Hall).
- Visualize military history from a Civil War cannon shell to a PT-17 Stearman suspended above tanks and a helicopter.
- Gawk at a multimillion-dollar collection of antique cars and motorcycles – a 1910 Brush Runabout, a 1965 Cobra and more – in the Transportation hall.
- Slip behind a bookshelf canted to look like a trick wall out of a whodunit to discover a suit of armor and other curiosities.
- Get a feel for the region: Shake in a simulation of the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12 that formed Reelfoot Lake; press your nose to a 20,000-gallon aquarium; listen to oral histories.
Best bets for kids and adults
As my preview was part of a VIP event, I knew there would be few kids in attendance. Before arriving, I assumed this would limit my ability to watch the place work its magic. Then, I overheard a woman giggling after the 32-foot slide “shot [her] out.” I watched as a mother and her adult daughter challenged each other to race solar-powered airplanes. I joined six other “grown-ups” playing, mesmerized, with something called Live Sand.
In the press conference earlier that morning, Discovery Park of America founder and benefactor Robert Kirkland described the attraction as “education and entertainment for all ages.” Now, I’ve been on something of a Southeastern U.S. science museum tour this month (Discovery Park of America marked my fifth such stop in two weeks). I know fun-for-all-ages when I see it. Discovery Park of America is the real deal.
With toddlers Look for “children’s exploration areas” on the Discovery Center’s second and third levels. These tucked-away play spots furnish dress-up stations, a texture wall, that irresistible Live Sand and high-end toys (kid-tough binoculars, wooden fishing poles for catching cloth fish, tag-alongs and such).
With elementary schoolers Race to the Discovery Center’s third level, where a 48-foot human form lures you into a look-out globe, and that super-fast slide will shoot you out onto the second floor. Build something epic together using KEVA blocks. Then, control the five-foot-around Discovery Globe to drain the world’s oceans or create your own weather pattern.
With ‘tweens or adults Pay the upcharge ($3.95 per person) to “board” Starship Theater. When the lights go down, volunteer to be a pilot, engineer, scientist or passenger via the control panel on your armrest. Next, you’ll rumble into space to fulfill your mission – collecting samples for scientific testing, piloting to Earth’s moon, and so on. The intimate, interactive motion simulator is the only one of its kind, designed exclusively for Discovery Park of America.
Know before you go
- Consider the two-day pass. Rain the day of my visit kept me from exploring any of Discovery Park of America’s outdoor attractions. At a brisk pace, and glossing over whole areas, I spent four hours inside the Discovery Center. When I return with my family, we’ll no doubt opt for the two-day pass ($19.95 vs. $13.95 single-day admission for adults; $14.95 vs. $10.95 single-day admission for children ages 4-12; $16.95 vs. $11.95 single-day admission for seniors; children 3 and under admitted free of charge). Add the Earthquake Simulator, Starship Theater or a ride up the tower for $3.95 a la carte, or purchase the $9.95 combo to experience all three. A café onsite makes it easy to spend the day here.
- A few notes on access/admission: Discovery Park of America is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Mondays and major holidays. In winter, closing time moves up to 4 p.m. Annual memberships go on sale Oct. 21 ($50 per adult; $25 per child ages 4-12; children 3 and under admitted free of charge). At this point, Discovery Park of America is not participating in any reciprocal museum admission programs.
- Make a weekend of it. Combine a day or two at Discovery Park of America with a visit to Reelfoot Lake State Park (30 minutes southwest) for a ready-made weekend getaway. To overnight, camp at the state park or consider one of the area’s lakefront lodges – we like Blue Bank Resort for its proximity to the state park, restaurant and ducks (pre-dinner entertainment for families).
I can’t wait to hear your impressions of Discovery Park of America – please share your highlights in the comments section below!