Discovery Park of America, one of America’s newest theme parks, opened on Nov. 1, 2013, in rural northwest Tennessee. Unlike most theme parks, Discovery Park’s primary mission is to educate, although to do so in an entertaining way. Interactive displays and hands-on activities keep visitors involved as they move through the 50-acre park. How could you not be involved while sliding through a 48-foot human frame or launching and guiding a spacecraft among the stars and planets?
Discovery Park is the brainchild of Robert Kirkland, co-founder of Kirkland’s, a 320-store retail chain specializing in home décor and accessories. The charitable foundation of Kirkland and wife Jenny contributed approximately $100 million to plan and construct Discovery Park. In addition, the foundation agreed to fund the park for 20 years with an annual contribution of $3 million for park operations and the development of new features.
The successful Tennessee businessman was interested in helping spur economic growth around his small community of Union City, but his main goal was to enhance the education of people of all ages. To help achieve this, he involved 250 area residents along with paid experts in the park planning process. Park architects once worked with the Smithsonian and the Louvre Museum. The park also employed the services of Thinc Design, an exhibition design firm that created displays for the National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center.
A Diversity of Experiences
One-and-a-half miles of sidewalks circle two lakes and connect the park’s themed venues. The centerpiece is a 100,000-square-foot futuristic multi-roofed Discovery Center topped with a 120-foot tower. Other venues are outside around the lakes on each side of this building.
On the south side, four buildings and a Civil War garden comprise Freedom Square. Exhibits here include a reproduction of the Liberty Bell and a restored 1926 fire engine. Across the lake is a replica of an 1880s train depot flanked by a beautifully restored engine and four cars. Visitors are able to walk through the passenger cars and caboose, and enter the engine where the pull-cord for the train whistle is within easy reach.
A little farther around the lake is a covered bridge and a chapel highlighted with stained-glass windows.
North of Discovery Center are 15 original log structures including David Crockett’s cabin. A large barn filled with antique tractors is nearby. On the opposite side of the lake, Mill Ridge is comprised of four buildings including a working grist mill and an 1800s school house. As the sidewalk continues, it encircles a large grassy knoll and open lawn that stretches from the lake toward the front of the park property where European and Japanese gardens, plus a maze are located.
The large lawn area provides a venue for concerts and other outdoor events.