Discovery Park of America Brings Visitors to West Tennessee

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Discovery Park of America

The small West Tennessee town of Union City gained some major bragging rights recently. In November 2013, Union City opened a spiffy new indoor/outdoor museum called the Discovery Park of America, and it’s causing the once-quiet town to be flooded with curious visitors.

“The Discovery Park of America is world class. It could have been placed in New York, Chicago, Atlanta or anywhere,” says Mary Nita Bondurant, marketing director at the Discovery Park of America. “We hoped to have 150,000 visitors in our first year. Instead, we are on target to hit 300,000. That’s pretty great for this little part of the world.”

A gift to the community from Obion County residents Robert and Jenny Kirkland (who made their fortune with Kirkland’s home furnishing stores), the 100,000-square-foot museum has 10 different themed galleries, an earthquake simulator, interactive Starship Theater, a $2 million dinosaur bones display, a 48-foot human statue with a giant slide, and a 120-foot tower with two glass floor panels.

The Kirklands hope the $100 million, 50-acre attraction will educate and entertain visitors of all ages, allowing them to see amazing things they might otherwise never get to see in a rural town. It’s a feast for the senses – a place where children and adults learn without even realizing they are being taught.

Discovery Park of America

Discovery Park or Bust

I’m a writer from Nashville, and with two young boys of my own, I’d been looking for an excuse to make the three-hour drive to Union City to see the Discovery Park for myself after hearing friends rave about it. So I was thrilled when my editor assigned me a feature story focusing on the unusual attraction.

My husband and I loaded up our boys – Bryce, 6, and Brett, 5 – and headed for Union City early on a Sunday morning. We arrived at the Discovery Park at noon, and we were impressed by the building’s architecture before we even entered.

Literally built out of a cornfield, the extraordinary white structure reminds me of the unforgettable Field of Dreams quote: “If you build it, they will come.” That’s certainly true at the Discovery Park of America – the parking lot was filled with vehicles from all over Tennessee and beyond.

SEE MORE: Discovery Park of America video

The multistory main building is surrounded by smaller structures, including an 1800s settlement of log cabins, a century-old church, gristmill, six full-size train cars, firehouse, barber shop, drugstore, gardens and an antique tractor mill, just to name a few. As we enter the main building, we’re greeted by a fierce-looking grizzly bear. I get our tickets as my husband coaxes the boys away from the adjacent gift shop, overflowing with toys, books, games and trinkets. There will be time to explore souvenirs later.

“I’m already overwhelmed,” I admit to the lady at the ticket counter. “Where do we even begin?”

“Start at the top and work your way down,” she advises with a knowing smile. Clearly, I asked a question common among first-time visitors.

Discovery Park of America

History in the Making

We board the escalator to the third floor, where we enter the Science, Space & Technology gallery. The first thing to catch my eye is a meteorite that fell near the city of Nantan, China, in 1516. Bryce and Brett look through an interactive telescope and push every button they see, waiting to hear commentary about our universe. A working replica of the Gutenberg printing press and a Brenkert projector from the early cinema days are nearby.

Bryce and I take a virtual trip through the universe at the Starship Theater, which has a 160-degree dome screen that gives you the opportunity to launch a spaceship from earth and steer it through planets and stars. The boys practically take off running when they spot the Children’s Exploration gallery, where they promptly soak their T-shirts playing with balls in the Water Works geysers and whirlpools (bring an extra shirt if your kids love water play). This gallery also has stations on sight and smell, a building area with thousands of Keva blocks, and a 48-foot sculpture of a human whose leg doubles as a super steep, surprisingly fast giant slide. (I might have had more fun sliding down it than the kids!)

Now on the second level, we find the Native Americans gallery, which displays more arrowheads than we can count. Brett wants his picture taken with a lifelike Indian statue who’s capturing a deer in a net. There’s also an Ice Age woolly mammoth and a hologram of a mythical figure recounting Native American legends and beliefs.

We move on to the Regional History gallery, where aquariums and terrariums showcase bass, crappie, turtles and snakes. My favorite feature in this gallery is the earthquake simulator, where you watch a film about the formation of Reelfoot Lake, and feel the sounds and tremors of the 1811 and 1812 earthquakes that forever altered the landscape of West Tennessee. Hold on tight to the handrails – the floor shakes throughout the film.

Discovery Park of America

Feel Free to Touch

We move through the Enlightenment gallery hidden behind a wall of books, with its swords, suits of armor and replica Ark of the Covenant. The boys find themselves in seventh heaven in the Military gallery, where they explore helicopters, planes and military vehicles they can actually crawl inside. Unlike most “do not touch” museums, this place encourages you to touch, feel and climb aboard. Bryce and Brett take turns sitting in the pilot’s seat of an Army green U.S. Marines helicopter. My fun-loving kindergartner salutes me as I snap his photo.

Our next stop is the Natural History gallery on the lowest level, where replicas of giant dinosaur skeletons fascinate Bryce. He literally drags me around by the hand, pointing out the stegosaurus and the T. Rex saying, “Mom, you gotta see this.” Eventually, I manage to pull him away from the Mesozoic Era, and we exit the building to see what treasures await us outside.

We soon discover some of the best here is saved for last. A cluster of cabins and log structures in The Settlement depict life in an 1800s community. One log cabin demonstrates how a doctor would have lived and practiced, and we imagine out loud what it would have been like to visit the doctor in a primitive cabin like this. At the nearby gristmill and blacksmith shop, you can observe the processes used in making corn meal and metal items.

“History is actually fun,” declares Bryce, my first-grader.

Discovery Park of America

A Peaceful Oasis

The Chapel is our next stop, accessed by a covered bridge. Scenic gardens, fountains and inviting benches encourage a moment of quiet reflection (which, for me, was interrupted when the boys figured out how to ring the gonging chapel bell).

We walk to the Depot, where we explore the insides of railroad cars, including a fancy one with carpet and early 1900s furniture, and a dining car where we pretend to have a meal. The boys take turns shoveling imaginary coal into the engine in another car.

Our last stop is Freedom Square, where we buy a Coke at the old drugstore, peek at antique fire engines in the Firehouse and see a life-size copy of the Liberty Bell. I well up with patriotism and American pride as I enter Liberty Hall, which has paintings of events from our nation’s history and replicas of documents, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence.

All too soon we hear over the loudspeakers that the park will be closing in 15 minutes. We head back to the main building for a quick look in the gift shop, and the boys lament that they wish we had more time. I agree. I could spend another whole day exploring the place.

“We think we have a gem in this rural northwest Tennessee town,” Bondurant says. “We hope it will educate and inspire our guests, while contributing to stimulating the economy in our rural community for years to come.”

I have no doubt the Discovery Park of America will do just that. As for us, we are already planning our next trip to Union City.

Discovery Park of America

If You Go...

Discovery Park of America is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is closed on Mondays, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

It is located at 830 Everett Blvd. in Union City. Admission is $13.95 for adults, $10.95 for children (ages 4-12), and $11.95 for seniors (65 and up). Children ages 3 and under get in free. Group discounts are available.

An on-site café offers sandwiches, salads, kids’ meals, pizza, homemade fudge and more. Upcoming special events for 2015 include a Dinosaur Egg Hunt on April 4 and a traveling exhibit called Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition that runs Jan. 31 through May 3.

For more information, call (731) 885-5455 or visit discoveryparkofamerica.com.

5 Comments

  1. ang

    February 25, 2015 at 8:07 am

    check out your prices. Forgot something there

    • Rachel Bertone

      February 25, 2015 at 9:39 am

      Hi Angela,

      Thanks for catching that! We’re working out a technical glitch in our system and hope to have it fixed soon. Until then, the prices are $13.95 for adults, $10.95 for children (ages 4-12), and $11.95 for seniors (65 and up). Children ages 3 and under are free. Hope this helps!

      Rachel Bertone,
      editor, TN Home and Farm

  2. Dan Shelley

    January 2, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    Looking to see if you still have the steam locomotive from Belfast ME #1149

  3. Tony Jones

    November 2, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    I’m curious to know how many visitors annually the park receives. We visited there earlier this year. It’s the Smithsonian of the South. We will definitely be back again with more family members.

    • Jessy Yancey

      November 30, 2017 at 4:02 pm

      Hi Tony, I’m not sure how many visitors it receives today, but it looks like almost 300,000 visitors for its first year of operation, and I would imagine that number has increased. So glad you had a great time!

      Best,
      Jessy Yancey
      editor, Tennessee Home & Farm

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