Bringing Dinosaurs to Life

Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on July 30, 2009
Jason Janik Victor Juandiego grinds the metal frame of a Dilophosaurus sculpture at Billings Productions.

Inside Billings Productions' warehouse in McKinney, Texas (pop. 54,369), workers stretch a durable polyurethane material over a large metal framework, slowly giving shape to a 20-foot-tall, 6,700-pound Tyrannosaurus rex.

Meanwhile, across the room, other employees are busy sculpting ferocious-looking teeth and fine-tuning movements and sounds to bring the prehistoric dinosaur to life.
Billings Productions builds 20 species of animated dinosaurs and leases them to museums, theme parks and zoos across the nation as educational and entertaining exhibits that delight both young and old.

"You can see drawings of dinosaurs," says Tim Brightman, 48, the company's director of business development, "but this takes it out of a book and into something kids can compare to their world."

Sandra Billings and her husband, Larry, founded the dinosaur-making business in 2003. Both spent the previous two years working for a similar business called Dino-MAE Creations in California. When Dino-MAE was sold and relocated overseas, the couple returned to Larry's hometown of McKinney to start their own dinosaur shop.

Larry, who died in 2007, was fond of saying that the only dinosaur he knew growing up was a picture on a Sinclair Oil can. He enjoyed watching children's reactions to his life-size creatures, each of which roars and has at least six movements controlled by electronic components inside the bodies of the beasts.

Billings Productions has 150 dinosaurs available for lease, ranging from the infamous T. rex to the lesser-known Baryonyx, which resembles a large alligator. Each dinosaur costs between $50,000 to $150,000 to build and depending on its size, takes one to three months for the company's 12-member staff to complete.

"We started with the popular dinosaurs that every kid knows," says Sandra, 56. "Then we added on to that and continued to expand for ongoing education."

Most customers host annual shows, and Billings' growing collection allows repeat clients to display different dinosaurs in each exhibit.

"We've brought in special animal exhibits, but nothing has the across-the-board appeal to a big crowd as the dinosaurs," says Chris Delores, 42, educational director of the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., which last year featured a display that let visitors match baby dinosaurs with their mothers.

Debbie Mahl, a fifth-grade teacher at Sherwood Elementary in Melbourne, says her students were fascinated with the interactive exhibit. "They grow up being interested in dinosaurs," says Mahl, 54, "but it's a mystery to them as to what they might look like. They just like being around them."

Through the exhibit, Mahl's students discovered that dinosaurs were caring parents. They also learned about dinosaur habitat, and gained an appreciation for camouflaging and the predator-prey relationship.

Billings dinosaurs have been displayed at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Fort Worth (Texas) Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, among others. They are a permanent fixture at the T-Rex Cafe in Kansas City, Kan.

Although each customer creates its own display, Sandra says all exhibits are family-friendly. A typical exhibit is displayed about three months, and clients lease the creatures for $150 to $250 a day, per dinosaur.

Sandra, along with her son, Trey Billings, 24, travels to exhibit locations to set up the dinosaurs and make sure they're operating properly, helping spread Larry's joy of giving kids a three-dimensional peek into the prehistoric past.

"A lot of it goes back to the kids," says Trey, who also programs the dinosaurs' movements. "I enjoy watching them laugh and smile, and I hope when they leave an exhibit that they have some understanding of what dinosaurs were like."