A tropical rainforest. The dim light filters through its thick canopy; water murmurs around the four people seated in a canoe. In the distance, a dinosaur submerges its long neck in the water. Before they have time to absorb the scene, another dinosaur appears from behind a tree, growling threateningly. But they don't have time to recover from the shock, since the canoe rushes down a steep 18-meter water chute... They all scream.
It's not a scene from the film "Jurassic Park," but an adventure at the Changzhou Dinosaur Park in Jiangsu Province, about two hours' drive west of Shanghai.
The idea of cloning the lost world of dinosaurs dates back to 1996, when the China Geology Museum in Beijing was looking for a new place to display fossils received as gifts from foreign participants attending the fourth World Geology Conference held there.
Changzhou businessman Shen Bo, now deputy manager of the theme park, seized that opportunity and successfully lobbied for the site. "Thus we made Changzhou the home of these fossils," he said, adding that the city hoped the park would help its tourism industry.
Shen's efforts paid off. Since it opened last September, the park has been receiving about 4,000 visitors a day. Among them, 35 percent are middle-school students.
The main building of the 300 million yuan (US$36 million) theme park looks like three dinosaurs putting their heads together. Their bodies serve as the show halls.
"We want to provide an insight into how these giant creatures evolved, dominated the Earth, then died out suddenly, leaving only fossils to show they ever existed," said Shen. "At the same time, we want visitors to understand how important it is to live in harmony with nature."
Visits usually start from the central audio-visual hall, where birds twitter and waterfalls splash. Suddenly, a thunderstorm rocks the earth, lightning rips the sky, and a dinosaur struggles through the rain as the environment begins to deteriorate, leading to their eventual extinction.
Mounted in the center of the rotunda is a fossilized Mamenchisaurus. This animal was 21-25 meters long, with a neck of 14 meters - the longest of any dinosaurs discovered until recently. This species was discovered by Chinese paleontologist Chung Chien Young in 1954.
Adjoining the central hall is the evolution hall with pictures and slides showing how the earth transformed into its current shape. here, visitors can map out the era of the dinosaurs.
The highlight of the museum is the dinosaur hall, where 50 or so dinosaur fossils are exhibited, including that of a tyrannosaur. All of them are provided by the China Geology Museum. "Each of our exhibits contains at least 50 percent genuine fossil," said the tour guide at the museum. "And the Shantungsaurus fossil is 80 per cent genuine," she added, referring to a 15-meter-long creature whose bones were discovered in Shandong Province.
The missing fossil bones are replaced by substitutes, accurate enough to beguile the casual visitor.
In addition to the dinosaurs, there are fossils of prehistoric fish and plants, and a mock-up excavation site with life-like sculptures of paleontologists.
The stairs leading to the second floor are built to represent the tail of a giant dinosaur, each step suggesting a vertebra. The dinosaur's head is projected on the roof of the exhibition hall.
The second floor includes the Sinosauropteryx hall and the extinction hall. Sinosauropteryx, discovered in 1996, was one of the most important fossil finds of the century. The proto-feathers preserved in the fossil provided evidence - though some paleontologists still dispute it - of the link between dinosaurs and birds.
The winged creature was found by Li Yumin, a peasant fossil hunter, in a series of rock beds known as the Liaoning deposits. Since its discovery, more fossils linking dinosaurs and birds have been found.
Visitors can see the fossilized remains of Protarchaeopteryx, a creature older than Archaeopteryx; Caudipteryx zoui, or "Zou's wing-tail," named in honor of Zou Jiahua, former Chinese vice premier, who championed research work in the rock beds; and Confuciusornis sanctus or "holy bird of Confucius," a creature paleontologists agree is the first true bird.
The center of the extinction hall is a pit, holding a dinosaur's fossil bones. A large screen on the wall shows a movie discussing various hypotheses about the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. There are several theories, but all agree on the geological fact that the dinosaurs died out almost overnight 65 million years ago.
China is one of the world's foremost sites of dinosaur discoveries and research. And in line with that, the park provides not only a center of entertainment and education, but doubles as a research center.
"We are going to host a series of symposiums on dinosaurs and make public new findings in the field," said Shen.
That will no doubt attract the scientists - but the adventure ride and massive skeletons will keep the kids pouring in.
How to get there: There are several tourism trains leaving for Changzhou from Shanghai Railway Station. K56, the earliest express train of the day, leaves at 9:21 a.m. and arrives at Changzhou at 11:15 a.m.