'Walking With Dinosaurs' Kicks Off Road Show

The lights go down, the smoke rises and the star of the show lumbers into the arena. She is 36 feet tall and 49 feet long, and she has a score to settle. The bleachers of Washington's Tacoma Dome shake as she walks, causing preschoolers to grab their mothers and older siblings to clutch the sides of their seats. The angry T. rex is out to save her baby, a mini-rex who, despite being 15 feet long herself, is cornered by two brave herbivores. The giant predator spots her baby, charges at the offending dinosaurs and lets out a roar surely heard as far as Vancouver. At which point a 7-year-old seated about 20 feet away sheepishly turns to her dad. "Um, I'm not scared," the girl whispers, "but she's not coming up here, is she?"

"Walking With Dinosaurs—The Live Experience" is designed to thrill, educate and terrify (a little). It's derived from the T. rex-size BBC series that attracted a whopping 770 million viewers from the time it first aired in 1999 and, later, on the Discovery Channel in the United States. The stage version is every bit as ambitious, and realistic. The tour, which kicked off a two-year run in Tacoma this month, features 15 eerily lifelike dinosaurs in a 90-minute stage production that cost $20 million to create—that's more than most shows on Broadway. "Dinosaurs" had better be good if it wants to take a bite out of the crowded kids' entertainment world. There are already more than a dozen stage shows adapted from TV programs, including "SpongeBob," "Dora the Explorer," "The Wiggles" and, coming next month, "High School Musical on Ice." What makes "Dinosaurs" different is that it's derived from a non-children's television show, which means it might also become that rare entertainment beast that parents and kids can enjoy together. "I know it would have been easier and safer to put together a more-traditional type of show," says the show's creator, Bruce Mactaggart. "But I thought, 'Why not take a risk and aim for something totally new and different?' Besides, what could be more fascinating to work with than a 45-foot-tall brachiosaur?" Take that, Barney.

The show begins with a "paleontologist" clad in safari gear, who hosts the proceedings from the stage. The creators of the show worked with a board of dinosaur experts to make sure their take was accurate, so they weave all 163 million years of the dinosaur's reign—from plate tectonics to the genesis of the dung beetle—into one colorful narrative. "I wanted to offer something that was entertaining and informative," says Mactaggart. "I do think people want a little more. That's what the BBC TV version had going for it." It takes a crew of more than 150 humans to bring the giant lizards to life. Each of the dinosaurs is operated by three controllers—one who drives the dino from its base and two who remotely operate its motion. Of these two, the principal operator has a "voodoo rig," or model of the dinosaur, attached to his arm so as to seamlessly coordinate its moves. An auxiliary operator oversees the fine movements and roars. The gargantuan dinos are made of lightweight steel and crinkly latex skin, but it's not just their size that matters. The smaller details—the brachiosaur's inquisitive cock of the head, the predatory glint in the raptor's eyes—are just as impressive. "We're coming up with technology here that I don't think has been used before," says producer Scott Faris. "I think if we're successful, the show will become a template for other productions. Or at least our own 'Dinosaurs II'."

Just about everyone in the kids' entertainment business is watching to see if the dinosaurs can expand their audiences to older kids and, ultimately, parents. "There's got to be a true crossover, and 'Walking With Dinosaurs' might be it," says Bradley Parsons, president of Arena Network, a consortium of the country's 51 largest venues. If "Dinosaurs" does hit that mark, Parsons figures it could bring in $100 million a year. But while the competition is smaller, it's also fierce. Nickelodeon's "Go, Diego, Go!" played a 16-date run last year at Radio City Music Hall that alone brought in $4.3 million, and "The Wiggles" sold out 12 shows at Madison Square Garden in 2003 (the supercool rock band Coldplay could fill the Garden for only eight nights). "It started modestly a few decades ago with 'Sesame Street Live'," says Linda Deckard, editor of Venues Today, a trade journal that focuses on the financial side of stadium and arena shows. "Now children's stage is easily a billion-dollar-a-year industry." And it's more sophisticated. "Today's parents are not only busier, but they face a greater array of options for going out with the family," says Stuart Rosenstein, vice president of Nickelodeon Recreation. "That's why we're aiming for Broadway quality, not the old skip-and-wave thing."

The dinosaurs are already stars in Australia, where Mactaggart (an Aussie) & Co. conceived them. The show debuted there in January and won three Helpmann Awards (Australian Tonys), including Best Special Event. But will American kids, who've long nursed a dino fixation in movies and museums, embrace these coldblooded entertainers when they're marauding just a few feet away? "Dinosaurs" seats in Tacoma cost up to $24.50 for kids and $79.50 for adults (the top "Diego" ticket costs $38), not to mention the inevitable merchandise, such as the $25 fuzzy strap-on dinosaur tail. Promotional gear aside, the show does offer what many kids' productions don't—an education. The opening-night audience of 7,000 in Tacoma was certainly dazzled by the spectacle, but the kids got restless during the factoid-heavy interludes. Other complaints: the show was too short and the soundtrack was too loud. Funny, no one complained that the T. rex was too short, or too loud.