Behind the towering replica of a T-rex glowering over Interstate 4 lies a roadside attraction thriving in the shadow of SheiKra and Mission: Space. Dinosaur World near Plant City glories in low-tech, with 150 full-scale replicas of giant reptiles that don't stomp, chomp or roar.
Founder Christer Svensson bought the shuttered Gator Jungle alligator farm in 1997. He moved with his family from Sweden the following year and opened Dinosaur World.
Marlene Svensson, his daughter and general manager, talked with the Times about how Dinosaur World got started and competes in Florida's crowded tourism landscape. Here's an edited version of the conversation:
How did your dad decide to build a dinosaur attraction in Florida?
He was in the entertainment business and opened up a few (dinosaur) parks in Europe in the '70s, beginning of '80s. He wanted to do a big, big park somewhere. We'd been on vacation here many years in the winter when it's very cold in Sweden.
How did he end up in Plant City?
He was looking in the Orlando area. It was very expensive, several million. He knew there was a gator park here. It was closed … but he met the man, and he wanted to sell it. There were 2,000 gators here. My mom was so afraid. The (owner) picked them up, but she was afraid they were going forget some.
There never were dinosaurs in Florida, right?
No. Florida was underwater at the time. We are an educational park for people who are interested in dinosaurs.
What's your target market?
Families with kids 3 to 10 years old. Even 2- and 3-year-olds know the names, know if they were meat eaters or plant eaters. We have fossil digs, where kids can keep three fossils for free. We have a bone yard with a (buried) Stegosaurus skeleton. We have a video cave and skeleton garden. As kids get older, they're interested in other stuff, they want more high tech.
So how do you compete with the Orlando parks on one side and Busch Gardens on the other?
We have a lower entrance fee: $12.75 for adults, $9.75 for children. We don't have a parking fee. They can bring a picnic lunch and coolers. We don't have any food service, but people can have pizza delivered to the park. We have a lot of school field trips coming out here. We give them a good rate, only $5. And a lot of day cares.
So, it's strictly a value play?
It's peaceful. It's no stress. Disney World is a great park. But for most of the stuff, you have to stand in line for 20 or 30 minutes.
A few years ago, your dad said the park drew 200,000 visitors and made a profit of $400,000 on annual revenue of $1 million. Are you doing as well now?
We had a little drop (in attendance) last year, just a few percent. Revenues are a little over $1 million. We're doing great.
How do you make money on such a modest gate?
We don't spend a lot of money on advertising. We have a few billboards but just took down a few toward Orlando. We have rack cards in hotels, restaurants. We have about 14 employees. Six are family members: me and my husband, my sister and her husband, and our parents.
Have you ever tried special effects?
Once, we put a sound by the Tyrannosaurus rex. It was like roaring. We had so many people complaining that it scares the children. And we don't want to do that. We took it down.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.