Review: Discovery Park of America

Driving through Union City, you see a typical smallish town. But if you veer off to the right and take a few turns through open fields, you find the Discovery Park of America – an impressive establishment that offers an entire day of exploration and family fun.

(photo from Google)

Discovery Park is not only a museum with typical static displays, it is also a science center, an outdoor concert venue and a trip through time. They are open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, and it takes a minimum of five hours to see everything.

The Mister, his parents and I visited for the first time this past Saturday, and it might have been the busiest weekend of the year (the college rodeo was in town). We arrived at 11 a.m. and the parking lot was full, people were parking along the road and in the grass, and the line at the front door was at least a quarter mile long. Fortunately, they opened the north gate to an outdoor ticket stand as we were arriving (helpful hint: look for this outdoor gate at the right side of the parking lot. Nobody sees it and the line is significantly shorter here.)

Tickets are $13.95 for adults, and you have to buy separate tickets for the planetarium, the earthquake simulator, the tower view ($3.95 each) and the traveling exhibit room ($7). So I’m not going to lie – it gets pretty pricey – but it was worth it in the end. We only got general admission and traveling exhibit tickets for our visit this time.

Since we went in the outdoor ticket gate, we started our adventure on the north side of the grounds instead of in the main Discovery Center like most people. Outdoors they have a Japanese garden, an old mill house built entirely without nails, a barn housing antique tractors and other farming equipment, a one room school house and an entire log cabin settlement filled with furniture, craft work and tools of the trades. And that’s just on the north lawn!

They tell you to start at the top and work your way down, but since we came in from the grounds we entered the Discovery Center on the lowest level. Here, Dinosaur Hall houses the skeletons of a dozen or more species of dinosaurs. The Mister almost wouldn’t leave this area. You can also take an elevator to the top of the observation tower from here, if you’ve bought tickets for that attraction. This level also features exhibits on the Enlightenment Period and a Chamber Room displaying ancient torture devices (that one is pretty gruesome). You can also walk through a hall of transportation exhibits (the mother-in-law and I sat on a bench with several other ladies while our husbands joined the other men examining and discussing the antique cars and motorcycles). The ground floor of the two-level military history section is also accessible here.

The ground floor is also where the traveling exhibit hall is. The Titanic Experience is on display now through May 3, and it was worth the extra $7. You can’t take pictures in there, so I don’t have anything to show you, but they have recreations of the various cabin types and lists of dining menus and all sorts of artifacts rescued from the ocean. You are given a card as you enter with a real-life passenger’s information on it, and at the end you can find your person’s name on a wall to find out if they lived or died. The thing from this exhibit that stuck with me most is the fact that none of the lifeboats leaving the Titanic were full. Each boat could hold 65 people, and some were only filled halfway. So many more people could have been saved if they had just gotten into a boat.

After walking through the Titanic exhibit, we ventured up to the top floor to work our way back down. The top level features standard museum exhibits in science, energy and communication, as well as the starship theater (extra admission) and a children’s exploration area, where kids can manipulate water flow, build towers with weights and perform other hands-on experiments. I really wanted to play myself, truth be told, but I didn’t have the heart to push any of the children aside.

One of the most-talked-about features in the Discovery Center is the human slide.

(photo from Google)

This slide takes you from the third floor to the second at tens of miles an hour. Really, I’m not kidding. It was so fast I didn’t have time to breathe before I was at the bottom. We even convinced my mother-in-law, who is claustrophobic and afraid of heights, to go down, and she didn’t have time to start freaking out before she was safety at the bottom. You definitely need two turns though – one to understand it and one to enjoy it.

After sliding to the second floor, we found exhibits on Native Americans, the top floor of the military display and a small aquarium area highlighting species found regionally at Reelfoot Lake. The earthquake simulator is also on this level, for an extra admission charge.

After spending several hours inside, we ventured out onto the south lawn with only an hour left until closing time. The south lawn features Independence Square, with a soda shop and Revolution-era fire station and city hall building. A short walk toward the parking lot finds a beautiful chapel from Tennessee’s early years and a train, complete with dining car, kitchen and first- and second-class cabins. The Mister and I sat in a comfortable compartment and imagined what it would be like if that were the Hogwarts Express. We were not the only ones to think these thoughts, as several passing visitors also mentioned Harry Potter.

We left the park at the final closing call and returned to the car thoroughly impressed with our first Discovery Park experience. Highly recommended for all ages; it is very family and stroller friendly all the way through.

Important notes:

  • Backpacks of any kind are not permitted. We didn’t know this, having come in through the outdoor gate, and had to check the mother-in-law’s camera bag at the security desk and retrieve it on our way out.
  • Also, you can leave for lunch and come back, but you probably don’t want to waste the time. We had perfectly delicious hotdogs and Dippin’ Dots ice cream outside on a patio and fed bits of hotdog bun to the ducks that have made their home on the large ponds.
  • Get there early, if you can. Look for the north outdoor ticket gate if the main line is too long, but be prepared to wait in lines at some point. Be patient, look around, it’s worth the wait.

So what are you waiting for? Book your trip today! Visit DiscoveryParkofAmerica.com for information on hours, special events and group pricing. They even have outdoor concerts in the summer, which I’m sure are loads of fun. Maybe we’ll even see you there!

(I am in no way being compensated for this review. I am merely sharing our good experience and encouraging others to go as well.)

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