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Heritage Tourism Lessons from Jurassic World

Jurassic World, the latest tourism movie, has broken box office records. It showcases the plight of executive directors of destination tourist sites in continually developing newer and more exciting exhibits to attract an increasingly bored public with limited attention span and which wants to be stimulated. The exhibits at Jurassic World are even more dangerous than Yul Bryner in Westworld and create an even more thrilling experience than our best American Revolution or Civil War reenactments.

Jurassic World’s operations manager is Claire Dearing. She is apparently is best-known for wearing high heels and managing to keep them on no matter the circumstances…including when running for her life!  She has been referred to as a “business suit-clad executive” who refers to the dinosaurs as “assets.” She also is said to “describe the parks in terms of revenue, not awe.” She “spends most of her time… hosting potential sponsors.” Any resemblance to actual managers of destination tourism sites is entirely coincidental.

Lessons of Jurassic World

What are the lessons of Jurassic World for the New York history community? Contrary to the Flintstones and Raquel Welch, dinosaurs are not part of human history. Mastodons  (not mammoths) however, are. As previously discussed in New York History, they were present in the Hudson Valley and discoveries of mastodon bones were events of great significance in colonial times and early American history.  Mastodons posed important theological questions and helped dispel the accusation of America being an inferior land because it did not have the large beasts of the Old World.

While their remains have been discovered throughout the state including on Broadway, many of these discoveries occurred in Orange County. Museum Village along Route 17 displays mastodon bones and skeletons. The County Historian, a rare full-time position, has a degree in anthropology with a focus on the Orange County mastodon discoveries of the early 19th century. While the efforts to resurrect mammoths (mastodons) is still in the infancy stage, we should not overlook the appeal of mastodons, and their history, in tourism and education.

Another important lesson we can draw from Jurassic World is the importance of the blockbuster. This type of movie is distinctly different from the run-of-the-mill release. We are all familiar with museums launching blockbuster exhibits. The famous King Tut exhibit is perhaps the most well-known. A few years ago the New-York Historical Society had a blockbuster exhibit on Alexander Hamilton,an individual currently boffo Off-Broadway, soon to be on Broadway (I am attending the opening July 13 as will many members of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society), and now in the news for the wrong reasons.

In the Hudson Valley one of the biggest blockbusters has become Halloween. This is not the holiday of my childhood, but holidays are assets which can be leveraged into annual revenue streams. Consider this headline from last October:

Cashing in on Halloween: Holiday brings in tourists, money.

Historic Hudson Valley has made a decision to minimize its focus on traditional family weekend tourism and instead go all-out for blockbuster experiences. This means performances of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at Halloween and “A Christmas Carol” at Christmas by Hudson Valley storyteller Jonathan Kruk and other events like Pirates of the Hudson (due to Johnny Depp) and Pinkster which has an historical basis.

The numbers speak for themselves. The visitors for these programs are over 100,000. The estimated average expenditure is $92 per person on dining, shopping, and lodging in addition to the ticket prices for the events. Rob Schweitzer, director of marketing for Historic Hudson Valley, estimates that one-third of the visitors stay overnight and make a long weekend of the visit. In other words, these events generate revenue – including tax revenue just as the Past through History is supposed to do.

Another lesson from Jurassic World is that size matters. Right now New York is undertaking the largest construction project in America: the new Tappan Zee Bridge. This massive project involves monstrous-size equipment and a daily chronicle of events. It even has a name: the Left Coast Lifter.  It also has a nickname: I Lift N.Y. Recently the Historical Society of Rockland County held a second boat tour on the River Rose, a Mississippi paddle wheeler, which included 125 people, many of who were shut out of the last tour. A local front-page newspaper headline read “TZB Tourists See History in the Making.”

Think about the wasted opportunity here by Rockland, by Westchester County which could have cruises from the Tarrytown side of the bridge, and by I Love NY to see I Lift N.Y. Imagine morning and afternoon tours and a sunset cruise during the summer. That is a potential for over 10,000 people month on the River Rose who besides paying the cost of the cruise may do other things while in Westchester, Rockland, or both. How difficult would it be to create a weekend program that included a cruise to see the biggest erector set in America, visit nearby historic sites, and have a meal on a scenic river boat or in the historic Old ‘76 House? Food, lodging, shopping, revenue, tax revenue. Let’s take advantage of the tourist opportunities which are staring us in the face.

One final lesson from Jurassic World is storytelling. Steven Spielberg has made a fortune by being a great storyteller and historic sites also have great stories to tell. They may be primarily for local consumption, like the stories families tell on Thanksgiving or other family occasions. These are the stories of community heritage which should be celebrated as part of the social fabric by the members of a local community. There are also are stories of state, national, and global significance which can be told as well.

The history community needs to become better storytellers, to use its site as a stage, to invite the audience to become part of the experience. Jurassic World is an artificial reality of special effects; we have the real world with real objects that can be touched and places that can be visited. Let’s perform our stories. Let’s tell our histories. Let’s bring the past to life our way.

5 thoughts on “Heritage Tourism Lessons from Jurassic World

  1. Now that I have moved to central NY, I am getting a very bad reputation for saying “Look at what they are doing in the Hudson Valley.” I would like to draw particular attention to the educational and entertaining St. James Church Historic Graveyard Tours in Hyde Park, NY. While many cemeteries are seldom visited and lie neglected, the St. James Cemetery is drawing enthusiastic crowds.

  2. It’s fine that you mention Steven Speilberg and his efforts but let’s not forget that the real storyteller was Michael Crichton, whose brilliant and scientific mind came up with the idea, among others, and presented it with enough scientific accuracy to make it believeable. He is sorely missed….

  3. Peter, excellent Jurassic story you wrote!

    In the 32 years I’ve published About Town, the most reader response comes from articles that tell the story of a person, place or thing. Our Historical Society in Lloyd gets between 60 and 140 people attending our monthly history programs and the speaker are people with great stories or who have written riveting books.

    Could not agree more with you on the story point, in fact on all your points. Thanks.

  4. Peter,

    In response I suggest, OR decision-makers could decide to make available the Union Hill Quarry in Suffern to be the site for a concert shell/summer home to the NY Philharmonic Orchestra AND for the 200,000 sf/$50 million museum/cultural center that is in part a collaboration with the United Nations that the Ramapough Lenape Indians already have in design – they need 7-10 acres. (The Novartis campus could/would provide extra space for the Philharmonic’s needs.)

    In 2010, a consortium of Munsee/Lenape Indians gathered from across North America at the Dutch Collegiate Reformed Church in Manhattan, reached consensus if a site could be secured in the quarry, it would be their preferred site for such a museum.

    At that meeting, Chief Dwaine Perry advised the ancestors of every Native person in the room once traveled through the Ramapo Pass.

    Such a museum, in addition to a PAC for the NY Phil, would provide enormous economic boost to the entire region.

    This link cites the economic return provided by the Children’s Museum of Cincinnati:
    Economics Center releases economic impact study of Cincinnati Museum Center | Cincinnati Museum Center

    Economics Center releases economic impact study of Cinci…
    The University of Cincinnati Economics Center has found that Cincinnati Museum Center had a total economic impact of over $114 million in 2013.
    View on

    In addition to the potential of the quarry, Suffern already is a designated gateway to the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and is included in the NPS Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route. In 1781 and 1782, French General Rochambeau and his 5,000 soldiers made encampment at John Suffern’s tavern and the environs.

    In 2010, Marci Ross, Assistant Director of the Maryland Office of Tourism, in her comments at a conference of the Partnership for the National Trails System spoke of the strength of heritage tourism where a National Heritage Area and a National Park Service Trail meet as is the case in Suffern.

    At the same conference Mark Brown, senior market analyst in the US Department of Commerce Office of International Tourism reported that in 2009, 33% of all international tourists visiting the US, went to New York City where they spent $42 BILLION. He also reported these international tourists “do fan out.”

    In his 1955 book, “Romantic Suffern,” Saxby Vouler Penfold wrote, “”The Ramapo Pass has never received from historians the credit rightly due for the part it played in the War of American Independence. The records show that this cut in the Ramapo Mountains was a site of supreme strategic importance in the great struggle for American Independence; that the possession of it was the key to military supremacy in the Colonies; and the successful defense of it was of infinite importance to America.

    That the Ramapo Pass is entirely lost sight of in all the published histories of the United States, is due in part to the fact that its very importance caused it to be kept secret; all military operations in connection with it were carefully concealed under various pretexts.

    Historians of the War of Independence harp on Bunker Hill and make history center about it, when it really was of very small moment. The armed conflicts which took place near Boston were scarcely more than preliminary events in the greater war that followed. As soon as the rebellion was found to be no longer local, as soon as the thirteen colonies instead of one were seen to be in revolt, the scene shifted to New York, and the Ramapo Pass was the prize to be fought for.” Military correspondence of the day indicates General Washington stationed as many as 400 soldiers to guard the Pass.

    Some consider Suffern to be the place where New England met the rest of the colonies. Had control of the Ramapo Pass been lost, the British would have been able to separate New England from the rest of the colonies and would have had ready-supply from Canada – there could well have been a different ending to the Revolutionary War.

    There are many stories of Revolutionary War activity to share that could attract heritage tourists. It is my understanding that General Washington climbed Torne Mountain near Suffern to watch activity of British ships in NY Harbor and that when he saw them sailing out in 1777, he hurriedly left to meet them at what became the Battle of Brandywine.

    The potential is so great if only decision-makers might embrace a heritage course of development. Perhaps throw in some dinosaur bones… the tourists will come.

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