T. Rex Redux

Millions of years ago, dinosaurs roamed the Meadowlands. Now Bloomfield impresario Guy Gsell is bringing them back in animatronic form to educate kids of all ages.

At the site of the Field Station Dinosaurs theme park in Secaucus, Guy Gsell pets a T. rex puppet.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

As everyone familiar with Jurassic Park knows, building a dinosaur theme park is an act of T. rex-sized hubris. In the movie and novel, it resulted in dinos running wild—and lots of gory disembowelment.

The stakes are not quite as high for Guy Gsell, 51, whose real-life theme park, Field Station Dinosaurs, is set to open in Secaucus this month. There’s no bioengineering involved; all the dinosaurs are machines. Gsell is buying 31 life-size, animatronic dinosaurs from a company in China and outfitting a few of them with special robotics created by a team in Texas.

“My dinosaurs will not be attacking people, because they’re fake,” laughs the Bloomfield impresario.

But screwups do happen. Take, for example, Field Station Dinosaurs’ big moment last December, when a national television audience tuned to a Giants game watched as Field Station’s 14-foot-long dinosaur puppet (with human inside) arrived at MetLife Stadium by train in a publicity stunt to promote both the theme park and NJ Transit’s game-day service.

Somehow, as the dino puppet was getting out of the train, the metal frame of its tail broke—a situation the puppet handlers realized only as the cameras were rolling. Luckily, a big Bud Light icon on the TV screen covered up the commotion as the handlers scrambled to reattach the dino frame.

“Here’s the problem,” says Gsell. “Trains are not designed for dinosaurs.”

In March, two months before the park was set to open, with the dinosaurs still under construction in China, Gsell’s biggest concern was whether his dinosaurs would make it to Secaucus in time for their opening.

“The wild card is dinosaurs being put on a container ship in Shanghai, China,” Gsell said at the time. Exemplifying the humor that has gotten him through more than a year of planning, he followed up by e-mail: “I have identified a number of perils on the high seas and arranged a route that avoids 1) piracy 2) icebergs 3) German U-boats and 4) Italian cruiseship captains.”

If Gsell’s luck runs the way it generally has been running, however, the boats will show up, the dinosaurs will be installed, and New Jersey will have a very cool new destination, expected to attract 200,000 to 250,000 visitors its first year, employ 120 to 150 New Jerseyans, delight and educate school groups and birthday parties, and reward Gsell’s investors. What that investment has been Gsell won’t say, except that it’s more than $1 million and less than $10 million.

If Gsell’s execution is on the money, Field Station Dinosaurs will be both good theater and good science.
The theater part is in Gsell’s DNA. The Glen Ridge native has spent his whole career in the theater and exhibition business—first as director of development for Paper Bag Players, then as managing director of Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, and most recently as director of Discovery Times Square.

So the sizzle comes naturally. And sizzle there will be—with animatronic dinosaurs ranging from a Compsognathus the size of a wild turkey to the mighty Argentinosaurus, which clocks in at 90 feet long and 30 feet tall. The theme park’s Argentinosaurus will be 20 feet longer than the largest beast in the Sinclair dinosaur exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where Gsell was first smitten with the prehistoric creatures.

Unlike the Sinclair dinosaurs, Gsell’s specimens will move. Most will be choreographed to move in three-minute cycles, repeating the same motions over and over. But three will actually be programmed to respond to outside stimuli, to follow motion and appear more excited with bigger crowds.

On a late September day last year, Gsell took an entourage of Hudson County officials, set designers and paleontologists on a walk through the planned site of Field Station Dinosaurs, an 18-acre parcel adjacent to Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus, which Gsell is leasing from the Hudson County Improvement Authority.

The park and Gsell’s parcel are part of an area once known as Snake Hill, formed by a volcanic eruption 150 million years ago, and home in the 19th century to a TB hospital, an insane asylum, an alms house and a prison. In the Triassic and Cretaceous epochs, which sandwiched the Jurassic, real dinosaurs roamed there.

During the September tour, the area was nothing but muddy trails and scrub. Walking backwards like a college tour guide, wearing a dinosaur necktie, Gsell laid out the planned wonders of his dinosaur park—evoking, in close succession, Jane Goodall, Disney World, John Ford westerns, Planet of the Apes and Fourth of July fireworks.

Families may come for the big dinos, but Gsell hopes they’ll stay for the science. The conceit of the dinosaur park is that it’s not just an animatronic sideshow but a scientific expedition. Gsell was inspired by Jane Goodall’s April 2011 visit to the Liberty Science Center and an Imax film that showed her base camp in Africa at its early stages. Field Station Dinosaurs is designed to appear like such a camp. The entire experience will be outdoors—with tents covering a succession of attractions—and will run only from May through Veteran’s Day.

You will enter the expedition at Base Camp, where families will be “credentialed” rather than ticketed. “In the amusement park world, Base Camp is Main Street Disney,” Gsell says. “It’s the opportunity to buy the hat you forgot, to find out all the events that are going on that day.” The “credentials” will cost $20 per adult and $17.50 for children 12 and under and can be purchased at fieldstationdinosaurs.com.

In addition to Base Camp, there’s the Quarry, where the focus will be on geology; the Dig, a giant sandbox where kids will dig for casts of dinosaur bones; the Fire Pit for food service; the Plateau, where kids will learn about the great dinosaur extinction and the impact humans have on the environment; and the Lookout, an ornithology station, which will emphasize the connections between dinosaurs and birds. Each of these outposts will be sheltered under a tent. Connecting all of the stations will be stone paths with rope railings. “It will feel,” says Gsell, “like walking through a zoo.”

There will also be four enormous puppets, with live puppeteers inside, which can move around, playfully nuzzling patrons, roaring and posing for pictures. Field Station Dinosaurs got one of these puppets, ordered from Australia, last fall, and has been trotting it around the state ever since—including at that ill-fated TV promotion.

The Lookout is also the pièce de résistance, the highest point in the park and the final attraction. “It’s where the big T. rexes are going to be,” Gsell says. “In parlance of fireworks, it’s the grand finale. Every parent will get a picture of their kid with the Tyrannosaurus rex and the Empire State Building in the distance.” Ever the showman, he describes the view of the New York skyline as “the final surprise. It’s like when Charlton Heston finds the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes.”

Theme park as scientific expedition is the big picture. And then there are the details. February, for example, was the first Gsell heard of the Hudson Essex Passaic Soil Conservation District, which needs to give its blessing to the project; its concern is soil erosion. That was just one in a series of approvals required, including ones from Hudson County, the Meadowlands Commission and the town of Secaucus.

Luckily for Gsell, the seasonal nature of his park works in his favor. “Much to my great good fortune,” he says. “I’m not changing anything” in the land itself.

In early winter, the thing that worried Gsell most was that the skin of the dinosaurs would come out looking too rubbery. He organized an expedition to China, where the monsters were being made, and brought along paleontologist Jason Schein, assistant curator of natural history for the New Jersey State Museum, and scenic designer Andy Hall.

All went well. The museum, says Schein, “wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t a serious commitment to the educational and scientific integrity.” Museum paleontologists in the Bureau of Natural History are providing educational and scientific oversight and training to Field Station Dinosaurs.

Still, there are details that are so basic that Gsell can’t believe how randomly they’ve come up. Like when somebody asked whether the park would close when it rained.

“Rain is an adventure,” Gsell says, with Mickey Rooney-like enthusiasm. And just to make sure his customers feel the same way, he has a sponsorship from outdoor-gear manufacturer Coleman to provide rain ponchos to every guest on wet days.

In the lead-up to opening day, Gsell plans a major barnstorming campaign—taking his 14-foot dino puppet to museums and public libraries, where he will donate the book Danny and the Dinosaur to each children’s collection. The library gigs are a practiced and perfected 30-minute ritual. First a troubadour sings dinosaur songs, then asks the children to sing loudly enough to bring out the baby T. rex, which emerges and playfully pretends to swallow children’s heads. Minor theater, perhaps, but, if Gsell is right, just the thing to fill Field Station Dinosaurs this summer.

Debbie Galant, founder and editor of Baristanet.com, is author of three novels set in New Jersey. She lives in Glen Ridge.

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