Science museum opens in rural Tennessee town


Discovery Park of America

830 Everett Blvd., Union City, Tenn., or 1-877-885-5455. Adults, $13.95 (two-day pass, $19.95); children 4-12, $10.95 (ages 3 and under free). From Memphis, about 115 miles; from Nashville, about 185 miles; from St. Louis, about 200 miles.

The gleaming white building with curved exteriors and a spaceship-like tower emerges from the flat landscape of West Tennessee like something out of science fiction, but it’s not a villain’s lair or superhero’s headquarters.

It’s Discovery Park of America, a new museum, education center and tourist attraction that opened recently in Union City, Tenn., a town of 11,000 located a few hours’ drive from Memphis, Nashville and St. Louis.

With exhibits about natural and regional history, dinosaurs, Native Americans, energy, transportation, science, the military and space flight, the museum can be described as a mini-Smithsonian Institution.

There’s an earthquake simulator, a 120-foot (36-meter) glass-encased observation tower and a 50-foot (15-meter) metal replica of the human body that includes a 32-foot (10-meter) slide.

The 50-acre (20-hectare) complex also boasts an old train depot, a century-old church and flower gardens, plus enough land for outdoor events and future expansion.

Union City resident Robert Kirkland, who built a fortune with a chain of home decor stores and smart investments, shelled out $80 million to build the museum, Kirkland plans to keep the exhibits fresh and unique with a $3 million annual investment.

High hopes are pinned to the project, but questions remain as to whether Union City will be able to lure hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses to make it a complete travel experience.

Discovery Park of America is built on a cornfield. It sits near Interstate 55, U.S. Highway 51 and the unfinished Interstate 69 corridor.

When visitors arrive at Discovery Park, they are greeted by a wide parking lot and a sidewalks leading into the Discovery Center. Tickets cost under $15 pre-tax for single day passes for adults, children and seniors. Two-day passes are less than $20.

Once inside, visitors go down an elevator or escalator to a brightly-lit, three-level atrium. The escalator itself is a learning experience; its mechanism is encased in glass so visitors can see how it works.

Dinosaur skeletons are set up in the atrium room. There are exhibits with Native American artifacts and a room filled with classic and historic cars, including a limousine owned by the early 20th century comedian W.C. Fields.

The military section showcases items from the Civil War and the two World Wars. A large hall has a Stearman PT-17 biplane suspended in the air, a tribute to military pilots trained at a nearby airfield.

Visitors who toured Discovery Park before its opening commented on the attention to detail. Handwriting can still be seen in soldiers’ Civil War journals, and concise descriptions accompany exhibits of old record players and photo equipment, like a Brownie Target Six-20 Box Camera.