Weighing in on a weighty subject, the Expedia travel site recently included Waco on its list of “America’s Top Dinosaur Destinations.”
Though the list is not ranked, Expedia chose just seven destinations. Waco soared to the acknowledgement not on the wings of pterodactyl, a flying reptile, but on the reputation and worldwide attraction of the Waco Mammoth National Monument. The dig on the city’s outskirts became part of the National Park System in July 2015, when President Barack Obama signed a proclamation.
Reagan King, site director at the Waco Mammoth National Monument, said she became aware of Expedia’s shout out to Waco about two weeks ago.
She had a bone to pick over the process but chose not to split hairs.
“Technically, we do not have dinosaurs. We have mammals. They were off by about 65 million years,” King said with a laugh. “But the recognition is cool, and to a kid, every bone in the ground is a dinosaur.”
Since the national monument designation, more than 100,000 people every year have passed through to view remnants of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths, according to Expedia’s summary. The 24 creatures, including young, apparently died suddenly about 65,000 years ago, during a natural calamity.
Expedia also acknowledges its loose use of the term “dinosaur” and includes the subtitle, “Finding fossils all over the United States.”
“Mammoths are not dinosaurs, but they are quite similar to modern-day elephants and their more primitive cousins, mastodons,” the listing summary states.
The list of top dinosaur destinations also includes Grand Canyon, Arizona.
“From the evidence of prehistoric sloths to marine life deposited in what is now desert terrain, you’ll find a diverse ecosystem dating back to the Paleozoic era at the Grand Canyon,” the summary states. “Just 175 miles away, researchers at the Petrified Forest have uncovered the partial skeleton of a Chindesaurus, which is considered one of the world’s oldest dinosaurs ever found.”
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, “just 20 miles north of the neon-lit Vegas Strip;” the Dinosaur Discovery Trail at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, Virginia; tar pits from the Pleistocene period west of downtown Los Angeles, where wildlife that became stuck “fossilized over time;” the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Kimberly, Oregon; and Connecticut’s Dinosaur State Park south of Hartford, with its well-preserved dinosaur tracks, also made the list.
The Waco mammoth site quickly got international attention after its monument designation, King said.
“People come from all over the world, from 50 countries last year,” King said.
Though the site carries a federal designation, the city of Waco keeps all revenue generated by tours and gift shop sales, about $500,000 annually, she said.
Admission to the attraction located at 6220 Steinbeck Bend Drive is free, but adults pay $5 for tours, while toddlers under the age of 3 pay nothing. Discounts are available to older children and seniors.
The site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Guests can visit the welcome center, then walk a 300-yard paved path to the “dig shelter,” according to the park service’s website. The fossils remain in the position they were found, and guides discuss the circumstances around their discovery, the significance of the ice age and the Waco Mammoth National Monument’s status “as one of the most important finds in North America,” the website states.
Though tiny, only 58-square-feet in size, the gift shop generated about $200,000 in revenue last year, King said.
“We can’t keep it stocked, stuff flies off the shelves,” she said.
Merchandise available includes stuffed animals, science-themed kits and toys, gems, minerals, books, mugs, magnets and T-shirts, all mammoth-themed.
“We could offer a larger line, but we are very picky,” King said. “Still, we need more room, and I’m slowly making the case for a physical expansion.”
Katlyn Holyfield, working the register Saturday, said one of the more popular T-shirts proclaims, “Future Fossil Older Than Dirt.”
The mammoth site sprawls across more than 100 acres, but the federal land covers only 5 acres, the dig itself 2 acres, King said.
What the public sees during a tour are fossils from the last six mammoths discovered, she said. The remains of 18 more are in storage at Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum on University Parks Drive.
The museum, which also is open on July Fourth, publicly displays fossils of other creatures found in Central Texas, including an ancient sea turtle found near Gholson, a community a few miles outside Waco.
Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, mentioned Expedia’s recognition during a meeting with several business leaders on Thursday.
She called the ranking a “fun fact” that reflects well on the mammoth site, the Mayborn Museum and Waco’s tourism industry.
“We definitely put the ranking on Facebook,” said Carla Pendergraft, who markets the city of Waco. “I don’t want to sound jaded. It’s an honor, and we don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. But Waco is getting a lot of accolades. Probably the most impressive is TripAdvisor ranking Waco No. 2 on its list of destinations ‘on the rise,’ just behind Kapa’a, Hawaii. That is astounding, shows we’re on the public’s radar, the world’s radar.”