Discovery Park of America invites visitors to see beyond

Saturday, August 10, 2013
A look at Discovery Center with the Settlement to its right. The multimillion-dollar Discovery Park will open later this fall in Union City, Tenn. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony slated for Nov. 1, 2013.

Located in Northwest Tennessee, Obion County has been known throughout its history as an agricultural community. However, beginning this fall, the county will be known for something that will allow visitors to "see beyond" its history, world and culture with the opening of Discovery Park of America. The near-$100 million park is set to officially open with a ribbon-cutting event on Nov. 1, 2013 and the State Gazette was recently invited to take a sneak-peek tour of the facility, which is still under construction.

Eight-year-old Andrew Griffith, a Dyer County, Tenn. resident and third-grade student at Christ Classical Academy, accompanied the Gazette on its tour, giving a unique child's perspective on the park that has been touted as a cross between the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

"I want to slide down the man's leg!" said Andrew excitedly on the 40-minute drive to Union City.

Sliding down the 50-foot man's leg is probably what every kid Andrew's age will want to do once they enter the 100,000-square-foot Discovery Center. However, before visitors make it inside there is plenty to see and do outside, on the 50-acre site that features seven outdoor areas with 21,000 square feet of exhibits.

The tour was guided by Mary Nita Bondurant, Discovery Park's marketing director, who has been tasked with the responsibility of spreading the word that this gem is being constructed in one of the quietest areas in the country. Discovery Park hopes to draw residents from as far away as St. Louis, Mo. and has been diligently working with educators to create a variety of curriculum to bring learning to life and allow kids to "see beyond" what they are experiencing in the classroom. The education opportunities are expected to draw students from throughout West Tennessee as well as from Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Touring the grounds

Discovery Park founder Robert Kirkland had a dream to have a full train sitting on railroad tracks at the park. Earlier this summer, his dream became a reality in June after the trains were shipped in and were refurbished by a company called Wasatch. Visitors will be able to walk through the trains and experience what an old-fashioned train feels like from the inside.

Construction is progressing at a rapid rate as the calendar nears fall. And this sneak-peek tour of the grounds was conducted from the safety of an all-terrain vehicle beginning on the south side of the property with the Train Depot. Featuring train cars that were built in Germany, the Depot, as it is more commonly referred to, will allow visitors to walk through train cars, adding a dimension of being able to experience what an old-fashion train car feels like from the inside.

"That is one of the neat things about Discovery Park," said Bondurant. "Mr. (Robert) Kirkland really wants visitors to be able to come up and touch things, smell them and see what they were like up close."

Obion County residents Kirkland and his wife, Jenny, through the Kirkland Foundation, have committed close to $80 million in start-up and building costs and have pledged an additional $2 million to $3 million in annual funding to keep the park operating and for expansion purposes. The park has also received sponsorships from private businesses and other organizations such as the University of Tennessee at Martin, Union City Rotary Club, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Discovery Park is marketing its facility as a special-events destination with the potential for multiple events to be held at the same time in different parts of the park. The Train Depot shows the first of many special-event sites on the grounds with a nice, small covered pavilion add-on behind it, which Bondurant noted is a perfect setting for children's birthday parties.

Freedom Square

A look at the Covered Bridge and Freedom Square from the front steps of the Discovery Center. The door to Liberty Hall, the main building in Freedom Square, lines up perfectly with the door of the Chapel with the Covered Bridge serving as a corridor between the two.

The tour continued with a stop on Main Street in Freedom Square. A replica of small towns in the early 1900s, the highlight of Freedom Square is Liberty Hall, in honor of our country's independence and includes a refurbished Fire House. Liberty Hall will feature replica documents such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, as well as a life-size replica of the Liberty Bell. Freedom Square is an ideal site not only for individuals who appreciate history, but also for social studies educators to bring history and civic lessons to life by showing their students up close the same documents, structures and artifacts they are reading about in their school books. The extraordinary outdoor gallery offers a glimpse of the park's mission to enhance the educational experiences of children and adults and to inspire them to see beyond their current level of knowledge.

The Covered Bridge and Chapel were the next stops on the tour with Bondurant offering the neat little secret that the door to Liberty Hall and the door to the Chapel were perfectly lined up with one another, with the Covered Bridge serving as a corridor between the two.

The Great Lawn

A view of the Covered Bridge and Chapel as visitors leave Freedom Square. The Chapel is over 100 years old and was formerly located in Elbridge, Tenn. before Discovery Park relocated it to its grounds. The Chapel is expected to be a site for many weddings in the future.

As the tour progressed from the south side of the grounds to the north side, one would be remiss to not mention the beauty of the landscape with water flowing from the north to the south end of the park, allowing one to take in the wonderful sound of flowing water.

Just to the north of the Discovery Center is a lovely hillside amphitheater and the Great Lawn that Bondurant commented the park hopes will become a site of many evening and summer concerts. The south side of the grounds also features an American Garden with the north side featuring Japanese and European gardens just adjacent to the Great Lawn. Recognizing that the grounds are an important part of the Discovery Park experience, unlimited-access pass holders will be allowed to enter the park even during non-hours of operation to enjoy a walk around the gardens, a small family picnic, or even take in the sunrise or sunset.

Stepping back in time

The Settlement with the Barn in the background. The Settlement will offer a glimpse of what rural life was like in the 1800s complete with a 150-year-old log house.
A view of Discovery Center, Covered Bridge and Chapel from the south side of Discovery Park. The facility is set to open in the fall after several years of planning, thousands of volunteer hours and support from several corporate sponsors.

The north side of the property includes Mill Ridge, the Settlement and the Barn, which will all offer visitors a glimpse of what life was like in more rural communities in the 1800s. At Mill Ridge, visitors will see a gristmill and blacksmith shop up close and will be able to observe the process used in making cornmeal and metal. A one-room schoolhouse will give today's students an eye-opening experience of what school was like two centuries ago.

The bright-red barn on the far end of the property concludes the grounds tour and, besides the Discovery Center itself, is probably the most visible building from the highway that travels in front of the park. The Barn will allow agriculture students to see the history of farming and view many different tractors, graters and combines used throughout the 20th century. As a unique touch, Discovery Park is creating a special farming logo to have placed on a flag that will fly on one of three poles just outside the building, accompanying the U.S. and Tennessee flags.

Discovery Center

After a lengthy grounds tour it was time for Andrew to get out of the vehicle and explore inside the Discovery Center. Although fascinated with the outside grounds, he could not wait to get inside and see the 50-foot man he has heard so much about, as well as the 10 galleries and 50,000 square feet of exhibits contained inside.

The Discovery Center itself has a unique design that cannot be easily described and was designed by Verner Johnson Inc., an architecture firm in Boston that specializes in museum projects and has completed more than 200 projects worldwide including several projects for the Smithsonian museums.

A 120-foot observation tower with a flagpole that stretches its height to nearly 200 feet highlights the building, which can be seen from a distance off Everett Boulevard. The observation tower will be one of several spaces offered as a meeting place for special events.

See a giant, feel an earthquake

Andrew Griffith poses at the end of the slide in the Natural History Gallery. The slide is part of the 50-foot man that sits within the Discovery Center and is so large that it was installed before construction began on much of the facility.

Finally inside, Andrew's mouth turns into a slight smile as he takes in the sight in front of him and one can just see him beginning to imagine the possibilities. Entering on the second floor of the Discovery Center, the 50-foot man sits straight ahead and as visitors take the escalator or elevator down to the ground level, which houses the Natural History Gallery, several dinosaur replicas will greet them. Also on display will be a projection of the Earth that will offer real-time weather information that can be changed to see weather patterns on other planets as well.

Walking through the Discovery Center, one can see the thought, time, and effort that have gone in to the facility. There is so much detail, visitors will need to return more than once to see it all. The detail is the product not only of Robert Kirkland's desire to offer a state-of-the-art education facility, but to the vision of Discovery Park's CEO Jim Rippy and the over 250 volunteers who donated more than 15,000 hours to make recommendations on the facility.

Although he was not able to slide down the 50-foot man's leg, Andrew was able to crawl inside and take a photo at the end of the slide, which comes down the enormous statute's left leg. The figure is so large that it had to be installed in the initial phases of construction with the facility built around it.

Andrew was also allowed to crawl in many other places beginning with the Regional History Gallery, where regional plants and aquatic life are on display in a 20,000-gallon aquatic tank. "Bubble" holes will allow kids to see up close a variety of living creatures such as bass, crappie and turtles from within the tank. However, what excited Andrew most in this gallery was the simulation theater where one can relive the 1811-1812 earthquakes that formed Reelfoot Lake, which is a short distance away in Lake County. Andrew enjoyed hearing from Bondurant how the initial simulation knocked everyone down to the ground. The simulation visitors will now experience will not be as drastic, but will still give everyone a taste of what it is like to be in a real earthquake. The simulation theater will be one of a few items not included in the price of admission.

Bringing learning to life

The Military Gallery offers a variety of things to see, with the first artifacts in the museum having arrived just in mid-July. The gallery is complete with artifacts from every war the United States has participated in, as well as videos from veterans speaking about their experiences. As a tribute to pilots, many of whom trained at nearby airbases, an actual PT-17 Stearman airplane hangs from the ceiling. There is also a Vietnam-era Marine Corps helicopter, which Andrew took great delight in climbing inside of and exploring.

"This is exactly what Mr. Kirkland envisions when the doors open," said Bondurant as she observed Andrew walking around the helicopter. "Kids exploring, touching things -- it will really bring learning to life."

Other galleries on the tour included the Native American Gallery, which will feature an Ice Age wooly mammoth as well as a hologram recounting Native American legends and beliefs. The Science, Space, and Technology Gallery will take visitors out of this world with the interactive starship theater (available for an additional fee) allowing two "pilots" to launch a spaceship from Earth and steer it though the planets and stars. The Transportation Gallery will display cars from each decade of the 20th century with the Energy and Enlightenment Galleries showcasing local artifacts, as well as ancient artifacts including a life-size replica of the Ark of the Covenant.

Kids will find their delight in the Children's Gallery with many "hands on" stations and activities for infants and toddlers as well. Students will learn about the physical properties of liquids and watch experiments with geysers and whirlpools in the "Water Works" area. Kids who like to see how things work, like Andrew does, will be fascinated even by the escalator and elevators, which both have glass casings to allow visitors to see the inside components and show how everything moves.

"This place is going to be amazing," said Andrew. "I wish I could live here!"

"Is there anything that would make it better?" asked Bondurant.

Andrew thought for a moment before responding.

"Maybe a Minecraft Gallery."


Discovery Park will officially open on Friday, Nov. 1 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but may have a "soft opening" before that date. Visitors are encouraged to "like" Discovery Park on Facebook and keep up with the park's progress. They can also visit the park's website www.discoveryparkofamerica.com for up-to-date information.

Discovery Park of America is located at 830 Everett Blvd. in Union City, Tenn.

Tickets will be available on the park's website soon and priced as follows:

* One-day ticket: $13.95

* Annual unlimited-access pass for adults: $50

* Annual unlimited-access pass for kids ages 4 to 13: $25

* Children 3 and under: Free

Parties interested in booking special events should contact Events Director Melissa Caldwell at (731) 885-7226.

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  • Hopefully all the locals will support Discovery Park. Great piece of work by the Kirklands. A step back in time for sure...

    -- Posted by Beachvol on Sun, Aug 11, 2013, at 9:11 AM
  • awesome!

    -- Posted by closerlook on Sun, Aug 11, 2013, at 11:03 AM
  • Wonderful, This is exactly what Union City needs. My children are going to love this place. Im so glad you picked Union City as your location. I cant wait to see this myself.

    -- Posted by Kelly Simpson on Wed, Sep 4, 2013, at 10:34 AM
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