Langford'92s Dino Domain not as bad as the sequels
War on Dumb by Kyle Whitmire
VisionLand might be the land before time in the mayor'92s mind, but one particular venture there is worth the rest of us remembering '97 fossilized evidence of implementation gone awry.
It was 1998. VisionLand was finishing its first full season in business. The park was meeting expectations and in some cases exceeding them. It was time to plot out the future, a plan to expand the park. The general manager, Frank Thompson, wanted to build on the success of VisionLand'92s water park. So far, Steel City Waters had been the biggest attraction after the Rampage rollercoaster. It seemed the logical thing to do. What better attraction could you build in our sweltering Southern climate but the state'92s biggest pool party?
Dinosaurs. They'92re the big thing right now.
Remember, it'92s 1998. Flashback style. Larry Langford is still mayor of Fairfield. (I'92m about to start a job at a weekly paper in Bessemer.) Barney still mesmerizes children. And the sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World, made a windfall last year at the box office.
Dinosaurs were the big thing and Langford seized on the idea. VisionLand would create a dinosaur theme for a portion of the park. You know, kind of like Jurassic Park.
Thompson resisted the idea. The water park held the most promise. The dinosaur idea needed some thinking-through.
But it was too late. The idea was already in Langford'92s head. He found a California company, Dinamation, that made giant robotic dinosaurs for museums and shopping malls. Thompson doubted that the robotic dinosaurs would work because they were built for an indoor exhibit and wouldn'92t stand up to the weather.
But it was too late. The idea was already in Langford'92s head. The personality and management conflicts between Langford and Thompson continued. When Thompson insisted that the park pay its vendors when invoiced, Langford fired him.
Did Langford have the authority to fire Thompson? It didn'92t really matter. At the next VisionLand board meeting (one of the few) Langford introduced the park'92s security chief as the new general manager. No one questioned the move, even though Thompson had been an exceptional manager. (His father had helped build Disney World and Six Flags. Theme parks were the family business. The new general manager, in contrast, had never run a business.)
Oh, and by the way, VisionLand was going to build a dinosaur attraction.
In retrospect, it'92s a good thing that Jurassic Park was only science fiction, or we might all still be running from the Tyrannosaurus rex.
The 1999 season began with promise and problems. A log flume ride flipped and had to be closed. Attendance slowed from the 1998 numbers. The dinosaur attraction, called Dino Domain, wasn'92t finished before opening day. As Thompson had predicted, the robotic dinosaurs didn'92t withstand the harsh Alabama weather and suffered constant technical problems. Dino Domain was supposed to cost $750,000 but before the 1999 season was through, that number had doubled to $1.5 million.
(It'92s also worth noting that VisionLand itself was supposed to cost $25 million, not the $90 bill passed on to taxpayers and bondholders.)
If the exhibit had drawn huge crowds it might have been worth it. But it didn'92t and it wasn'92t. The reviews were mixed. For the adults and older kids, the robotic dinosaurs were unlifelike and unimpressive, especially after seeing Stephen Spielberg'92s special effects on the big screen. For the younger children, they were traumatizing. On one stop, a Triceratops groaned and writhed in pain as it was disemboweled alive by a towering T-rex. Bambi never made kids cry like that.
Perhaps the biggest miscalculation was that the exhibit was a walk, not a ride. The sense of urgency and adventure you might feel at Universal Studios'92s Jurassic Park
VisionLand'92s Dino Domain had the tourist appeal of that gator farm you pass on the way to the beach. It couldn'92t draw enough people to justify its cost of operation. When the park struggled to reopen the next season, Dino Domain remained closed. And when private enterprise took over the park, Dino Domain was mothballed.
VisionLand never paid Dinamation for the 37 robots and the company sued the park. Like so many other vendors, they never saw another dime, and in 2001 Dinamation went out of business, the same year VisionLand went bankrupt.
Dino Domain alone didn'92t cause VisionLand'92s demise, but it is indicative of the habits and hubris that did. The important point here, though, is the pattern. Mayor Langford'92s political career has been a steady succession of dinosaur rides '97 from painting sidewalks in Fairfield purple to buying 15,000 laptops for 18,000 students. Some have worked. Some haven'92t. Many ideas failed because those Frank Thompsons, the internal critics, were ignored, silenced or fired.
In a way, Langford keeps going back to Dino Domain just as moviegoers kept going back to Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III. Last week, when the transit system questioned Langford'92s proposal to make bus fares free for the summer, Langford said he would have fired the board and its director if he'92d had the authority to do so. When the city council denied the proposal this week, Langford interpreted their vote as impotent and said he would do it his way, anyway.
The parallel of VisionLand and the fictitious Jurassic Park is too delicious to ignore. Larry Langford and John Hammond are the eccentric visionaries, so in love with their ideas that they shut out or shut up the critics trying to help them. Ultimately, those criticisms prove prescient, and the visionaries'92 creations turn on them. The lawyers and investors get eaten by velociraptors, or worse in Langford'92s case, sued by the SEC.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture.