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Jurassic Quest organizers amazed at Duluth's wild enthusiasm for animatronic dinosaurs

Ticket sales for the upcoming show have been so far beyond expectations that producers called the DECC to ask, "Are these numbers real?"

A crowd of children reaches up to touch the nose of a yellow-hued carnivorous dinosaur as adults take photos with cell phones.
Jurassic Quest has proved popular at many of its touring stops, including this past show, but demand in Duluth has been particularly strong.
Contributed / Jurassic Quest
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DULUTH — You know that moment in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" when Alan Grant (Sam Neill) first sees a live brachiosaurus? The meme-ready shot when the paleontologist almost drops his glasses as he fumbles to see the spectacle with his own eyes?

The staff at Jurassic Quest seem to have had a moment like that when they saw the sales numbers coming out of Duluth for advance tickets to their touring show of animatronic dinosaurs.

"It's fun to see this kind of excitement," said Lucie Amundsen, director of communications at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. "Having the show itself call and say, 'Are these numbers real? Can you double check this? This can't be right.'"

Jurassic Quest, an interactive edutainment experience featuring various simulations of prehistoric life, is coming July 1-3 to the DECC. The Duluth visit was announced in April, and Northlanders turned out to be more excited than your average dino fans — by an order of magnitude.

"The first week, most venues sold a few hundred tickets. We sold 5,000," wrote Amundsen in an email to the News Tribune.

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Jurassic Quest staff confirmed the numbers, and also the fact that Duluth ticket buyers were way ahead of any other market in taking advantage of a promotional discount on June 1, International Dinosaur Day. The DECC show sold 796 tickets through that promotion; Ottawa came in at a distant number two with 474 tickets sold. This is despite the fact that the population of Canada's capital city is more than 10 times larger than Duluth.

No one can entirely explain why Duluth is going gaga for this animatronic experience. When reached by phone Monday, Amundsen was running a Ticketmaster report to see what she could discern. She said the DECC staff also scoured the internet, wondering whether a major influencer might be out there talking, for some reason, about Duluth's Jurassic Quest.

"We couldn't find one," she said, but she noted that it's not just ticket sales: Everything the DECC has done around Jurassic Quest has caught fire. DECC email newsletters about Jurassic Quest were opened at three times the rate of typical newsletters, and 1,500 accounts have shared the DECC's Jurassic Quest posts on social media.

Every weekend this summer, there's a festival or big show happening in the Twin Ports area.

"We are flabbergasted at the virality" of posts about this event, said Amundsen.

Traditionally, neither Duluth specifically nor Minnesota generally have been thought of as dinosaur hotspots. We don't have an official state dinosaur, and our state fossil is a giant beaver.

Blame the glaciers, said paleontologist John Westgaard. "We know that for the majority of the time, Minnesota was land during the time of the dinosaurs," he said, so there's no reason to believe we didn't have giant reptiles walking around. "But the relatively much younger glaciation has covered up most of that."

072421.n.dnt.fossils2.jpg
Nathan Burleigh, 5, of Keewatin, uses a magnifying glass to take a closer look at some fossils during a July event at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm to highlight fossils found at Hill Annex State Park.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

That's why Westgaard is part of an effort to find fossils on the Iron Range, where mining activity has made ancient layers accessible. The project has unearthed evidence bolstering the notion that dinosaurs once roamed today's Northland, and a lot of fossils from when Minnesota was underwater during the Cretaceous period.

"We'd be sitting at a bar or restaurant in the evening and start sharing with somebody and tell them that we find shark teeth here on the Iron Range," said Westgaard, a staff member at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

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What was the reaction? "For the most part, it was a lot of disbelief."

Does the Jurassic Quest sales surge suggest that Northlanders are claiming their page in the book of dinosaur history? Maybe.

"With Duluth, we hit a sweet spot" in terms of timing, said Kimberly Stoilis, Texas-based director of outreach and public relations for Jurassic Quest. It's a summer stop, and tickets went on sale just as people were firming up their plans.

It also lands on the Fourth of July weekend, when families will have a lot of reasons to visit Duluth — and, in particular, the DECC's harborside environs. With big music shows for different demographics coming to Bayfront Festival Park, a giant fireworks display, and now Jurassic Quest as well, "it could be that it just is becoming a package weekend, even though it wasn't set up that way," said Amundsen.

Researchers have spent the last eight years combing through waste rock at Hill Annex Mine State Park in Calumet.

It doesn't hurt that the latest movie in the "Jurassic Park" franchise, called "Jurassic World Dominion," will very likely still be playing at the adjoining Marcus Duluth Cinema.

"Dinosaurs have always captured the imagination of young and old alike," said Stoilis, who also cited the "Prehistoric Planet" series on Apple TV+, "but they're really in the forefront of popular culture this year."

Westgaard hopes that the latest prehistoric productions, coupled with the ongoing discoveries by the Hill Annex Paleontology Project, prompt more locals to learn about "what might be here underneath our feet in northern Minnesota."

He added that "it doesn't do any good for us to do the science if we can't share it. Let more people know that sharks and giant fish and pleisiosaurs and, yes, even dinosaurs roamed here in Minnesota 90 million years ago."

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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