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Jurassic Quest roars into Duluth

The animatronic attraction's crew had less than two days to turn the DECC's Pioneer Hall into a prehistoric playground.

Brainy Beth, the dino trainer, holds onto Tina the T-Rex as she speaks near a Styracosaurus at the Jurassic Quest dinosaur experience
Brainy Beth, the dino trainer, holds onto Tina the T-Rex as she speaks near a Styracosaurus at the Jurassic Quest dinosaur experience in Pioneer Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — "Goes from a curling rink to a jungle really quickly."

On Thursday morning, a "dinosaur trainer" known professionally as "Brainy Beth" made that observation as she stood in a cavernous, nearly empty Pioneer Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. To all appearances, she was holding a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex, which occasionally gnawed at its trainer's left hand.

"She's teething," Beth explained.

The dinosaur, introduced as Tina, perked her head and peered at a trailer where an older, much larger specimen of the carnivorous species was being slowly extracted, the adult T. Rex tail waving lazily as it emerged from its ride.

Beth, her colleague "Prehistoric Nick," and a crew of over 30 were just starting a process that would culminate in the 3 p.m. Friday opening of a touring immersive attraction called Jurassic Quest.

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Crews continue to work to prepare the Jurassic Quest dinosaur experience
Crews continue to work to prepare the Jurassic Quest dinosaur experience in Pioneer Hall at Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"Do you want that to be a real T. Rex?" asked Beth, indicating the adult specimen. "If you want it to be, then it can be."

That's very much what Duluth wants, based on the DECC's brisk ticket sales, which have exceeded expectations by a wide margin. By Thursday, Friday's tickets were completely sold out, though spots remained available for Saturday and Sunday.

"In Duluth, I think there's a lot of interest in science and exploration," said Prehistoric Nick on Friday morning as he stood near the menacingly mobile tails of two Tyrannosaurs, by that point fully upright and appearing to feast on their scaly prey.

A visitor looks up as the Quetzalcoatlus opens its beak
A visitor looks up as the Quetzalcoatlus opens its beak and begins to turn its head down during a tour of Jurassic Quest in Pioneer Hall at the DECC on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"The reality and cruelty of nature," said Beth philosophically, surveying the scene. "This is the T. Rex and Triceratops scene. Obviously it's a little more disturbing than the others, but ... nature is too, sometimes."

If the life-size dinosaurs weren't quite as intimidating under the full glare of Pioneer Hall's overhead lights as they would later be when the attraction was lit for visitors, the robotic reptiles were still a striking sight.

"If you can picture something the size of a giraffe floating through the air coming after you," said Beth, indicating a Quetzalcoatlus voraciously nodding its long beak, "it might not have been a good time to, like, live."

The dinosaurs slowly came to life over the course of the 8 a.m. hour on Friday as Jurassic Quest staff scurried through the hall erecting crowd barriers and placing labels indicating species names. Eventually, eerie sounds began to emerge.

"We don't really have scientific evidence to say the dinosaurs roared," admitted Beth. "but it is creative, and it does make it a little more atmospheric."

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Pioneer Hall's north expanse is dedicated to the large-scale animatronic models, while the south half is reserved for hands-on experiences including a fossil dig, inflatables and various opportunities to straddle mobile dinosaurs. (Beyond the admission price, there's an additional cost for rides.)

A local kid looks over multiple dinosaurs that he could sit on
A boy looks over multiple dinosaurs that he could sit on during a tour of Jurassic Quest in Pioneer Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Friday morning.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

With six hours to opening, Prehistoric Nick had his work cut out for him. "I also work in the repairs department, so I'm also sort of a dino doctor," he said. "I'm going to be patching up a few dinosaurs and putting them in better condition."

"I train dinosaurs. I also drive forklifts," said Beth, explaining that the attraction's staff are "very cross-trained."

The attraction fills over a dozen trucks, she noted. "I remember when I first started working here, seeing the Spinosaurus come off the truck. It was an insane, kind of mind-blowing experience. That's to scale, and it takes an entire 18-wheeler to (carry) it."

Prehistoric Nick talks about fossils at the Jurassic Quest
Prehistoric Nick talks about fossils at the Jurassic Quest dinosaur experience in Pioneer Hall at the DECC on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

With the fossil table yet to be set up, Nick cracked a couple crates to reveal some of the specimens he'd be sharing with Duluth youth. A package of Pepto-Bismol sat on one of the fossil chests, though it was unclear whether the Tyrannosaurs would get any.

"This is a real dinosaur bone," said Nick, carefully lifting a long, broad object from a well-padded case. "This is a scapula from a dinosaur ... this was found in Montana."

Though neither is a trained paleontologist, both Nick and Beth proved to be rich founts of information on the dinosaurs displayed at the DECC.

"I hate to burst everybody's bubble, but this is actually a more accurate representation," said Beth, indicating a Dilophosaurus — the species that, in the movie "Jurassic Park," found its way into Dennis Nedry's Jeep. "There's no evidence whatsoever that it spit poison."

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Xena Xelie adds a name plate under the Guanlong
Xena Xelie adds a name plate under the Guanlong as staff adds some of the finishing touches to the displays at Jurassic Quest in Pioneer Hall at the DECC on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

When it came to accuracy, even Jurassic Quest's resourceful engineers had their limits. "That is the best interpretation we could possibly provide of down," said Beth, referring to a group of small furry models. "That's supposed to simulate feathers."

The far south end of Pioneer Hall is dominated by a shark the size of a school bus, part of the attraction's "Ancient Oceans" display. Suffice it to say that if you came upon it in open water, you'd want a bigger boat.

"It technically lived after dinosaurs, but it's the largest shark in Earth's history that we know of," said Nick. "We don't know the exact size of Megalodon because, unfortunately, their skeletons don't preserve very well. Their bones are actually cartilage."

Dino trainer, Brainy Beth, left, carries Tina the T-Rex, as she talks to a child during a tour of Jurassic Quest
Dino trainer, Brainy Beth, left, carries Tina the T-Rex, as she talks to a child during a tour of Jurassic Quest in Pioneer Hall at the DECC on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Nick, who arrived Monday, had time to explore Canal Park and lunch at Grandma's, he said. After Jurassic Quest wraps up at the DECC on Sunday, the staff will have to promptly start packing for their next stop — Rochester's Mayo Civic Center — but Beth said she likes to get out and about when she can.

"I like to see the local cultures, and sometimes we'll even take our baby dinos out to do the same," she said. "We took them across to Manhattan once, when we were in New Jersey. Crossed the bridge with our babies."

Brainy Beth, who joined Jurassic Quest in 2020, said it's a "privilege" to have the job, even though it means busy days that can start as early as 3 or 4 a.m., when there are morning news shows to appear on.

"Who wouldn't want to become a dinosaur trainer?" Beth asked rhetorically, Tina the T. Rex looking up at her adoringly. "I've always been a huge nerd. Who doesn't love to see the world with dinosaurs?"

A child takes a closer look at a scene featuring a Baryonyx and Hypsilophodon at Jurassic Quest
A child takes a closer look at a scene featuring a Baryonyx and Hypsilophodon at Jurassic Quest in Pioneer Hall at the DECC on Friday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Ticket sales for the upcoming show have been so far beyond expectations that producers called the DECC to ask, "Are these numbers real?"

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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