LEHI, Utah — The age of the dinosaurs is long gone, but the giant beasts may still be able to usher in a new era of tourism in Utah.
Paleontologists and dinosaur admirers already flock to a host of separate hot spots around the state and the region, from the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding to the exhibits at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah to the Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border, which draws half a million visitors a year.
Paleontologists and state tourism officials hope the new North American Museum of Ancient Life will tie the various sites together and solidify Utah's reputation as a prehistoric attraction.
"We just think the whole thing is going to be an excellent addition to the dinosaur attractions in Utah," said Spencer Kinard, assistant director of the Utah Travel Council. The new museum in a metropolitan area could prove a jumping-off point for visitors to venture to other parts of the state, he said.
The first phase of the museum opened on Saturday at Thanksgiving Point, 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. The rest will be ready in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Touted as the first major museum in the United States devoted solely to the prehistoric beasts, the $24-million, 122,000-square-foot museum will feature 50 casts of dinosaur skeletons, hands-on exhibits, a research facility and a theater to show IMAX movies.
"All the people who work with dinosaurs in the state have been anticipating this for quite a while," said Dan Chure, a research scientist at Dinosaur National Monument, which features a dinosaur quarry where visitors can see more than 1,500 fossil bones. "It may be that this becomes the museum around which the state can emphasize dinosaur tourism. Everyone would benefit from it."
The museum, a private venture between Western Paleontological Laboratories, Quantum Management and Thanksgiving Point Development, looks like the set of the movie "Jurassic Park."
The collection will include a Utahraptor along with three Stegosauruses and the first displayed skeleton of the 110-foot-long Supersaurus, according to executive director Bill Bridges. There will also be two species discovered by Western Paleontological Laboratories: the Hesperisaurus and the Gargoyleosaurus, an armored animal with a head like a gargoyle.
About a dozen skeletons will be ready this month for public viewing in the museum's first phase, as well as an exhibit called "Raising Giants," which features a participatory quarry dig.
Brooks Britt, director of the Eccles Dinosaur Park in Ogden, said the museum could start a wave of excitement for dinosaurs.
"That museum is going to be phenomenal. Everyone's going to be talking about it," he said. "They're going to do a great job. It will have a major impact on tourism in Utah."
Chure at Dinosaur National Monument agreed. "Utah is certainly one of the best states to go to for anyone interested in dinosaur sights. This museum is going to be an incredible draw," he said.
As an example, the paleontologists mention the closest comparable attraction: the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta. The 120,000-square-foot Canadian museum has 35 dinosaur skeletons and "fleshed out" models, said spokeswoman Marty Hickie.
Bridges said the North American Museum of Ancient Life hopes to capitalize on Utah's Olympic Games, with plans to unveil another three dozen dinosaurs and a research facility before the crowds arrive in 2002.
In the meantime, Utah's other dinosaur attractions are waiting to see what effect the new museum has on their own attendance. Most are optimistic.
On the Net:
The Dinosaur Museum in Blanding:
Eccles Dinosaur Park: