Story, photos by
For Crossroads Magazine
UNION CITY, Tenn. — Kirkland’s accent store founder Robert Kirkland’s dream was to build a museum and heritage park like no other.
His rules would be simple in the park: “Please walk on the grass.” And the museum would ask visitors to “please touch.”
This concept birthed in the corn and cotton fields in rural Northwest Tennessee and fueled with the philanthropist’s wealth gave rise – literally – to a 100,000-square-foot discovery center and exhibits and 50-acre historical, botanical and recreational park.
Called Discovery Park of America, the complex off Highway 51 in Union City, Tenn., is part Smithsonian Institution, part Disney World EPCOT all designed for visitors to feel, touch, hear and see history and beauty.
It’s more than a destination.
It’s an unforgettable experience, one which over a million people have enjoyed since the complex opened on Nov. 1, 2013 — like young mother Mia Rhyne of nearby Dyer, Tenn., on her first visit with her three-year-old son Korben Womac.
“We have been running around all day,” says Rhyne, as a smiling Korben gets his hands wet in the hands-on Water Works Exploration exhibit. “We have loved it so far. His (Korben’s) favorite is the Dinosaur exhibit.”
It’s a late February weekday at Discovery Park — not the official peak visitation season.
Rhyne and her blond-headed bundle of energy are one of many family units exploring the museum. A cold day with blustering winds keep most visitors indoors, including hundreds of parents and children taking part in Home School Day, one of many speciality days where Discovery staff include hands-on instruction in large classrooms.
Retired educator Janet West works two days a week at Discovery to interact with visitors and give additional insight to the exhibits.
“It is all hard to see in just one day,” explains West, a former art teacher at University School of Jackson and Gibson County High School. “I love it because everyone from young kids all the way up to adults of all ages are learning something.”
West is on duty on this particular day at the Starship Theater, where 30-minute educational films are shown on a 160-degree dome screen. “It is all such a great experience.”
Staff member Scott Williams takes a seat inside Sabin’s Cafe, the attraction’s eatery. He is ready for an interview, but first notes the story along the walls of the cafe, where large black and white circa 1920s photographs tell the history of the Reelfoot Lake region while visitors munch on burgers, coney dogs, fried bologna sandwiches and sweet potato waffle fries.
Williams can’t shake the Discovery “share a story” bug — not even in the cafe — where not far away a large display case tempts museum goers with homemade fudge in four flavors.
“These photos tell yet another story,” shares Williams, looking at the work of photographers Verne and Nonie Sabin, whose most noted images captures the allure of Reelfoot Lake.
Williams is a journalism graduate and Memphis native, and if one of the visitors had read the business card before the interview, would have revealed the man is in charge of the “see beyond” experience.
“The reason I came here is Robert Kirkland traveled the world — and while he lived here — he collected and saved things with the idea to expose people to new ideas,” says Williams, the CEO and president of Discovery Park since January 2019. “It’s about educating people on what the world has to offer. He had a vision for people to learn and be inspired. This is the opportunity to change the course of people’s lives.”
Kirkland and his wife Jenny donated more than $100 million to build the vision in his rural hometown.
“Tourists from all over the world come to experience Discovery Park,” adds Williams, who spent six years with the Newseum in Washington D.C. and a dozen years with Elvis Presley Enterprises. “We host a lot of families.”
“These exhibits encourage children and adults to see the world and learn more,” says the park president.
There are nine permanent exhibit galleries inside the three-story Discovery center, including Children’s Exploration, Energy, Enlightenment, Military, Native Americans, Natural History, Regional History, Science/Space/Technology and Transportation. A 10th gallery features rotating and traveling exhibits.
“Astronaut” explores the physical and mental challenges involved in space exploration and gives visitors a look at what life is like outside of the earth. It remains at the museum until May 3.
The center also includes a 20,000-gallon freshwater aquarium, Simulation Theater which will leave guests shaking in their boots with the 1811-12 massive earthquake experience which created Reelfoot Lake.
Dinosaur replicas, military equipment, fossils, vintage automobiles, Native American artifacts, torture chamber, authentic meteorite and a 120-foot glass-enclosed Observation Tower are just a sampling of the mind-blowing things to experience.
But wait. There’s more. Another 50 acres await visitors on a path of history and botanical beauty in the outdoor park.
The Settlement is a step back in time which depicts rural life in the 1800s with authentic log cabins, blacksmith shop, doctor’s office, schoolhouse and farm buildings.
Extensive landscaping features plants from around the world, including 2,500 azaleas and 3,000 rose bushes. They are showcased in distinctive Japanese, American and European gardens.
Barn, farm equipment, tractors, vintage neon signs, covered bridge, working grist mill, 100-year-old church, plus a train station with a depot, locomotive and several rail cars await the curious at heart.
“The train area is my favorite part,” says Williams, as visitors get a real life experience with visits inside rail cars and the steam locomotive. “This is a don’t miss area.”
Freedom Square’s Main Street is another step back in time to the early 1900s with a barbershop, drug store and fire station. Liberty Hall is home to reproductions of the Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence and a full size replica of the Liberty Bell.
As if the outdoor experience wasn’t enough, the Children’s Discovery Garden was added in 2017 to encourage little hands and feet to explore in a fun and safe environment.
Of course, every attraction has its downside and Discovery Park is no exception when it comes to the complaint department.
Williams admits the complaint is the “I wish I had known” more about the museum and exhibits, “so we could have spent more time.”
Yep. So much. So diverse. So incredible.
Those are the feedback words from visitors who after a visit, only wish they had planned more time on their trip.
“To really see and experience it,” notes Williams. “It takes more than a day. It really, truly does.”
Mia Rhyne, the young mother who lives just a short 40-minute drive away, was already planning a return trip with her three-year-old.
“We will be back,” she says, smiling. “Definitely.”
Things To Know
Before You Go
Directions: Discovery Park is about 125 miles northwest of Corinth and it takes about 2.5 hours of travel. Although Highway 22 and Highway 45 East are good routes through West Tennessee and may be good options from various points in the Crossroads area, Highway 45 West through Jackson, Humboldt and Trenton is the quickest route. It’s a four-lane highway, except the final 20 miles into Union City from Kenton, home of the white squirrels.
Admission: $15.95 adults 18 and up, $12.95 kids 4-17, three and under free; VIP Package available for $24.95 adults, $22.95 kids 4-17; $2 discounts available for AARP, active military, educators, college students; Save 10 percent by getting tickets online; Annual memberships available
Additional fees: $4.95 a person each for Earthquake Simulator, Starship Theater and Cooper Observation Tower; A new “Pick Two” in 2020 promotion allows visitors to pick attractions for $7.95; Astronaut exhibit is $6.95 per person
What’s New: There are two new movies in 2020 now showing in Starship Theatre: “Wild Africa” and “Journey to Space.”
Suggestion: For visitors planning to stay more than a day, consider the VIP package which offers a second day free admission, unlimited tower access and 10 percent off cafe and gift shop purchases.
When to visit: August through February hours are 10-4, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This is the off season with less crowds. March through July hours are 10-6, open every day and is considered the peak season for families on Spring break and summer vacation. “It is so massive, we have no capacity issues,” shares CEO Williams. “There are no long lines.”
Where to stay: Choice Hotels Sleep Inn and Mainstay Suites are now open next door with easy park access with rates starting at $99 per night. Another next door neighbor, Holiday Inn Express and Suites, expects to be open in the Spring 2020 and will feature four family suites with Discovery Park themes. “With the addition of motels right next door, we are expecting more overnight stays in the future,” says Williams.
Where to eat: Have lunch at Sabin’s Cafe inside the museum. On the return trip to the Crossroads, stop at Brooksie’s Barn at 561 Oil Well Road in North Jackson which features an awesome evening buffet with catfish, pulled pork barbecue and ribs with all the fixings in a barn setting with a view of a large pond. Open until 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Weekday lunch buffet features country cooking. Brooksie’s is open 11-2 on Sundays. Menu items are available for to-go orders.
Off the record: Discover Park can be seen in one day for folks traveling from the Crossroads, but plan to arrive before opening time and expect to stay all day until closing. Watch the weather forecast and plan what part of the day to see the outdoor exhibits vs. indoors.
Area attractions: Reelfoot Lake, a shallow 15,000-acre body of water known for its fishing, boating and wildlife viewings, would make a great side trip. Lake was created by earthquakes in 1811-12 which caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards. Reelfoot Lake State Park offers camping, cabins and nature trails. Boyette’s Dining Room has been serving up great food since 1921 for Reelfoot visitors.
For more information: Call 731-885-5455 or visit discoveryparkofamerica.com
(Corinth, Miss. resident Mark Boehler serves as editor of the Daily Corinthian, Crossroads Magazine and Exploring Pickwick magazine. Northwest Tennessee remains dear to his heart as he is a 1981 graduate of the University of Tennessee – Martin and served as sports editor of the Weakley County Press in Martin, Tenn. early in his 43-year newspaper career.)