BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield resident and 1978 Glen Ridge High School graduate Guy Gsell puts on a really big show. Combining live performances with animatronic dinosaurs, Gsell is the creator and operator of a dinosaur-theme park in Leonia, named “Field Station: Dinosaurs.”
“I went to the World’s Fair in 1965 and saw dinosaurs,” he said recently in his Broad Street office. “I never forgot it.”
Following graduation from college, where he was a humanities major, Gsell worked for the Paper Bag Players, a children’s theater company in New York City. He then became the managing director for Two Rivers Theater, in Red Bank, and afterward was employed as the director of Discovery Times Square, a venue for traveling exhibitions.
“That’s where I learned about exhibition,” he said. “With Field Station: Dinosaurs, I’ve combined the two, theater and exhibition, for kids 3 to 11, and their families. I wanted something that immediately said ‘science’ and ‘field station’ is a scientific term.”
With his dinosaur season running from May to November, Gsell’s Leonia park opened in May 2012. Attendance over its first five seasons have ranged from 80,000 to 120,000, with its first year being the most well-attended. At the height of the season, Gsell has 40 employees. In his Bloomfield office, there are three, including himself.
“Kids are already excited about dinosaurs,” he said. “We want to turn that into a passion for dinosaurs. Our goal is to make every kid a scientist.”
There are 33 full-scale dinosaurs at the field station with some the size of baby dinosaurs. Although they do not roam, the models roar, blink their eyes, breathe and move in place.
“They’re all different colors,” Gsell said. “Their movement loop is about 2 ½ minutes long. And they need as much maintenance as a bicycle. The motors are standard. For the eyes, it’s a windshield-wiper motor. Any of the motors are nothing mechanics haven’t seen.”
To obtain the dinosaurs, Gsell and a paleontologist from the New Jersey State Museum traveled to China, where they were manufactured, “to make sure they looked right,” he said.
Among the exhibits, the 27-foot long Tyrannosaurus rex is the most popular but not the biggest. The apatosaurus is a 60-footer, but is still not the biggest. That distinction belonged to the 90-foot argentinosaurus until a pre-opening day blaze this year reduced the mechanic beast to a metal skeleton resembling an elongated chicken coop. The Leonia Fire Department responded.
“We’re replacing it next season,” Gsell said. “A welder was working on it. Sparks got loose and set it on fire.”
How much a dinosaur costs, Gsell would not say. But depending on size it could be as much as $100,000.
The live performances, written, directed and scored by Gsell, are not stories but educational lessons. There are as many as 40, 20-minute, live performances a day when the field station is in full swing.
“We do a show called, “What color is your dinosaur?” Gsell said. “We have fun with that show. They think dinosaurs had feathers, they’re so closely related to birds. Birds and dinosaurs are in the same evolutionary family. They’re the only animals with wishbones, for instance.”
Field Station: Dinosaurs has been covered by the TV programs “Nightline” and “Good Morning, America.” Although Gsell was not doing anything to expand operations, a developer saw one of the programs and asked him to create an exhibition park in Derby, Kansas, a suburb of Wichita.
“We were approached by a Kansas developer, Gsell said. “As part of his commercial and retail development he wanted to bring in an attraction.”
The field station in Kansas will have 42 dinosaurs. Some will be aquatic, Gsell said, since Kansas, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, was under an ocean.
“The park in Kansas will cost $13 million,” Gsell said. “It’s being built from scratch and being funded by a Star Bond, a sales tax-anticipated reserve bond.”
Gsell said Kansas provides bonding for tourist attractions with revenue generated by the attraction paying off the bond.
The Leonia theme park will also be relocating. Gsell said it is scheduled to open near Teaneck for the 2018 season. Bergen County, he said, is spending $2.2 million in improvements to Overpeck County Park.
“They’re creating a beautiful park and we’re moving into it,” he said.
But for now, the dinosaurs in Leonia will be wrapped in tarpaulins to wait for spring. Gsell said there is the potential for future field stations to appear in Texas, Florida and New York.
“The cool thing is that you can take away Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the elves, but you can’t take away dinosaurs.”