Travel: Quirky Discovery Park of America offers something for everyone
UNION CITY, Tenn. — For travelers who aren’t expecting it, a first look at the Discovery Center can be a bit disconcerting.
The massive, 100,000-square-foot museum brings to mind a giant sea monster surfacing among the cornfields of northwestern Tennessee, except it’s filled with fascinating exhibits instead of unfortunate mariners. And the center is just one piece of the 50-acre Discovery Park of America.
The park’s amazing, and huge, assemblage of science, history, natural history and cultural displays makes it a destination for visitors from around the country, and a must-see for any families venturing near Union City.
A private family foundation contributed $80 million to establish Discovery Park in 2013 and continues to support its operation. The park is like 10 museums rolled into one. But what it lacks in focus it makes up for in breadth, containing something of interest for, surely, every visitor.
The first thing guests encounter when entering the Discover Center building is a giant, snarling (stuffed) bear, which sets the cool, quirky tone found throughout the site.
Things only get bigger in the Natural History Gallery and Dinosaur Hall, where skeletons of three-story-high ancient creatures await.
Among the other indoor galleries are those devoted to American Indians, regional history, military history, nature, energy and transportation.
One of my favorite exhibits was the room-sized Earthquake Simulator, a high-tech re-creation of the enormous New Madrid quakes of 1811 and 1812 that changed the flow of the Mississippi River and created nearby Reelfoot Lake. The panoramic, wrap-around video screen, moving floor and water mister make the experience very realistic.
Younger explorers, especially, will enjoy another high-tech exhibit, Starship Theater, which simulates a journey through space. “Passengers” help choose destinations and solve problems using keypads at their theater seats.
I appreciated the Oral History Theater, where visitors could sit in rocking chairs on a simulated front porch and watch short video interviews of older local residents recounting their personal experiences with racial segregation and discrimination.
I was also impressed by the large interactive globe in the Science, Space and Technology Gallery that could be programed to display any planet in the solar system.
And the exhibits and topics go on and on.
Is there a large antique-car exhibit? There is.
How about a room devoted to ancient torture devices? But of course.
A holographic Indian camp fire? Check.
A full-size rendering of the Arc of the Covenant? You know it.
Outside the Discovery Center building, visitors will find a plethora of additional exhibits and displays, including a re-creation of an early Tennessee town that features authentic historic buildings and some reproductions.
Across pretty North Lake is Mill Ridge, with a historic school house, a picturesque mill and feed store, and an exhibit hall filled with beautifully restored antique tractors.
Three beautiful garden areas are also located near the lake: The Children’s Discovery Garden and play area; the magnificently landscaped, formal European Garden; and the pretty and peaceful Japanese Garden.
After a half day of exploration, I thought I’d glimpsed, at least, everything the park had to offer.
The Discovery Center’s observation tower, 200 feet above the surrounding flatlands, offered a magnificent view of the area, including an entire section of the park that I had completely overlooked to that point.
So back outside I went, following the park’s burbling stream across a pretty covered bridge to a historic church, train depot and some beautiful vintage passenger train cars.
Then a stroll along South Lake brought me to Freedom Square, with an old-timey drug store, firehouse, barbershop and a “Liberty Hall” containing displays on Tennessee and American history.
Around Liberty Hall are full-sized, heroic-looking statues of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Prometheus, Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand — because of course there are.
I’ll withhold further editorial comment — except to note that I was impressed by Discovery Park’s professional, informative and wide-ranging exhibits, but also charmed by its uniquely quirky personality.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.
If You Go
DISCOVERY PARK OF AMERICA
This 50-acre complex of museums, historical exhibits and cultural displays is located in Union City in northwestern Tennessee. The centerpiece of the park, Discovery Center, is a 100,000-square-foot museum loaded with high-tech, interactive experiences as well as old-fashioned (but well-curated) museum displays. Galleries include Energy, Children’s Exploration, Enlightenment, Military, Native Americans, Natural History, Regional History and Science/Space/Technology.
Discovery Park of America is open Tuesday through Sunday. Single-day admission is $14.95 for adults and $11.95 for children ages 4-11. Discounted admission is available for seniors and members of AAA, AARP and the military services. Additional charges apply for a few exhibits, such as the Earthquake Simulator.
For more information, call 731-885-5455 or visit discoveryparkofamerica.com.
For information about more things to see and do and places to stay in and near Union City, call the Obion County Chamber of Commerce at 731-885-0211 or visit www.obioncounty.org.