NOT TO SCALE : Exhibit Puts Robot Dinos in the Mall, and 'Island' Puts Intrepid Explorers in the Driver's Seat

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's a mostly typical morning at Santa Ana's MainPlace. Over in the food court, senior citizens fresh from their daily stride around the mall gather over coffee. Young mothers in pristine Keds and stylish sweat suits pilot strollers across the tile floor. Electronic cash registers blip and bing, and somewhere in the distance a toddler howls his discontent.

But a few steps inside the mall's west entrance, something is different. It's a sound . . . a rumbling, no, a growling, punctuated by the rhythmic hissing of hydraulics.

Curious, you round the corner and come face to face with a 42-foot-tall, razor-toothed Tyrannosaurus rex, holding court next to the escalator. His crimson eyes meet yours with an appraising (or is that hungry?) look, then he slowly turns away, directing his attention and muffled roars toward customers in the bookstore, most of whom, amazingly, continue to browse, apparently undisturbed.

Through April 9, MainPlace is home to "Dig Those Dinos!" In addition to T. Rex, six other robotic dinosaurs are scattered throughout the mall; the beasts, along with several exhibits and hands-on stations, were created by Irvine's Dinamation International Corp. (On Saturday, children at the mall can take part in a free Dinosaur Creativity Station, which will feature clay sculpting and other activities, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) Barnes & Noble bookstore is offering free dinosaur story hours for youngsters March 22 at 11 a.m. and March 26 at 4 p.m.

Through March 30, MainPlace is also the site of "Dino Island," a four-minute film and theme-park-style ride that runs continuously during mall hours.

But back, for a moment, to the dinosaurs. Realistically posed and accompanied by clear and colorful signage, the creatures attract plenty of attention. Just past T. Rex, next to the mall's main fountain, another toothy predator glares menacingly at passersby; he's a dilophosaurus, a leggy, tiger-striped beast with bright yellow appendages on his head that look like flames painted on a souped-up car. In fact, they are plate-like radiators that helped keep the creatures cool in the heat of the Arizona desert, where they lived in the early Jurassic period. Keep an eye on this one: The dilophosaurus was thought to have spit venom at its prey, and this model follows suit, shooting streams of water at odd intervals into the fountain.

A less intimidating pair await in the south end of the mall: an apatosaurus (that's the dinosaur formerly known as Prince, uh, brontosaurus); the model here, shown "munching" a nearby palm, is about one-third the size of the real thing, which is thought to have been about 75 feet long; and a stegosaurus whose head and tail areas have been stripped of their foam skin to reveal its wiring and the aluminum and steel skeleton.

Travel north in the mall and you'll encounter a triceratops, a tri-horned critter with a distinctive frill around its head, who regards visitors with an expression of benign dignity. And there's a euoplocephalus, an armored dinosaur outfitted with multiple barbs and a clubbed tail.

But for people who prefer a more pro-active experience, and a nice adrenaline rush, there's "Dino Island." Created by Iwerks Touring Technologies of Newport Beach with the Sony Corp. and screened inside a portable theater unit known as the Reactor, "Dino Island" is highly realistic and reasonably intense in conveying the fictional experiences of environmentalists exploring an island populated by dinosaurs. Viewers watch the film while strapped into computer-controlled, hydraulically powered seats that pitch, veer and dive in sync with the action on the 9-by-16-foot screen.

Kids seen leaving the Reactor on a recent weekday morning called it "awesome."

Once strapped into one of the Reactors' seats, visitors become part of the story line. Through a combination of sophisticated, computer-generated images and live action, the film whisks viewers "aboard" an all-terrain vehicle from one nerve-tingling encounter to the next. First there's a run among a herd of jumbo apatosauruses, then a near fatal drop from a cliff, the vehicle's fall broken just in time by a flock of passing pteradons that proceed to fight for possession of their prize (that would be you). You're ultimately dropped to the brush below, where your landing disturbs--what do you know?--a slumbering T. Rex.

The film is one of several the company tours throughout the country, according to Iwerks event marketing director Joe Glynn. Local residents can catch Iwerks' "Blue Angels," in which viewers "fly" among the world-renowned stunt team, next month at the El Toro Air Show.

A word of caution: Children who scare easily may want to skip "Dino Island." Several preschoolers were seen emerging from the ride in tears. Instead, you may want to spend more time at one of Dinamation's hands-on exhibits in the mall, such as the "Dig Those Fossils!" station, where kids can brush away (or throw, as the case may be) faux sand to reveal fossilized remains.

What: "Dig Those Dinos" robotic dinosaur display and "Dino Island" attraction.

When: The exhibit and "Dino Island" are open during regular mall hours. "Dino Island" closes March 30; "Dig Those Dinos" continues through April 9.

Where: MainPlace mall, 2800 N. Main St., Santa Ana. "Dino Island" is in a parking lot behind the mall's west entrance.

Whereabouts: Take the Main Street exit off Interstate 5 and go south.

Wherewithal: "Dig Those Dinos" is FREE; complimentary tickets to "Dino Island" are available at the concierge desk and at most stores in the mall.

Where to call: (714) 547-7000.

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