With time travel off the table and with bringing dinosaurs back to life to wander a high-tech zoo clearly a safety gamble, the Franklin Institute is offering the next best thing for people who want to get up close and personal with dinosaurs. Jurassic World: The Exhibition, opening Friday for its North American debut, lets you walk into the movie's titular park without risk to life and limb.
The exhibit is a high-end amusement park ride (think Universal Studios or Disney) crammed into a museum. "We talk about it like a traveling theme park without a roller coaster," says Tom Zaller, president and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, the company that produced the exhibit. Like the Haunted Mansion or Star Tours, it's immersive, with role-playing involved. The premise is that visitors are not merely in the halls of the Franklin Institute, but guests at the Jurassic World park on the tropical island of Isla Nublar. With a little suspension of disbelief, the exhibit takes you on an "in-world" tour of the park.
The introduction to the exhibit plays along with this idea before you even get into the space. Instead of the typical video or placard telling you what you're about to see, you get a ride on a catamaran from Costa Rica to Isla Nublar — by way of a room made up to look like a boat, with large-screen projections on the walls showing the island getting closer on the horizon.
Once you arrive on the island and enter the exhibit, you walk through the Jurassic Park gates to find dense ferns and foliage below you and a thick tree canopy above (some of which is physical and some of which is projected graphics). As you go through the "park," guided by Jurassic World rangers that pop up on various digital "information stations" through the exhibit hall, you'll meet an animatronic Brachiosaurus and Parasaurolophus, have a chance to pet a Pachyrhinosaurus in the "Gentle Giants Petting Zoo," see raptors go through a training session with their handlers, watch a lumbering Tyrannosaurus get fed, and witness a battle between a Stegosaurus and the (made-for-the-movies) Indominus rex from Jurassic World before — in true Jurassic-franchise fashion — you have to evacuate the park.
The animatronic dinosaurs, created by Creature Technology Co., with guidance from Jack Horner (the world renowned paleontologist who was the technical and scientific adviser on all the Jurassic movies), are magnificent. If you were a grade-schooler in the early 1990s or responsible for raising one, you might remember field trips to see one of a number of "lifelike dinosaur" exhibits that sprang up in the wake of Jurassic Park and featured dinos that, at most, swiveled their necks a bit and looked like Chuck E. Cheese robots.
The Jurassic World dinosaurs are not that. They're detailed and surprisingly active. The T. rex roars, strides a good distance, and nudges a Jeep in an attempt to get at a meal inside, while Indominus rex lunges at the Stegosaurus, which attempts to defend itself with its tail.
On top of the animatronics, there are the velociraptors. Portrayed by actors in animatronic-assisted costumes, they'll be rattling the bars of their cage in the Raptor Training Area — a new section of the exhibit that makes its world debut here — and interacting with guests in a way that feels a bit like a Hollywood-size dino-themed version of Terror Behind the Walls. The neat thing about having raptor actors inside the dinosaurs, Zaller says, is that they can gauge visitors' reaction and act appropriately. With little kids? They might give you a sniff and move on. Look like you're up for a scare? They might give you a little more attention.
There's more to all this than stepping into a movie, though. The exhibit also features plenty of real-life dinosaur science. The rangers that guide your tour may be actors walking you through a fictional narrative, but the info they're providing about dinosaur physiology, distribution, and behavior is factual. There's also text-based content and interactive stations like microscopes through which you can examine thin sections of dinosaur bones and learn about how paleontologists use fossils to determine dinosaurs' physical and behavioral traits, and replicas of dinosaur eggs and info on how dinosaurs reproduced and raised their young. The exhibit is careful to delineate the real science from the "in-world" tech innovations and other narrative elements, and even dispels some of the less-accurate science from the films — like the idea that you can make a dino from the DNA trapped in an ancient mosquito.