In an effort to stand out from their competition, hoteliers will try all sorts of gimmicks. They'll build hotels from former jails, refurbished castles or retired railroad cars. They'll float boat hotels, make teepee hotels, and dig underground and underwater hotels. From a Beatles fan fantasy hotel to, yes, a B&B shaped like a giant beagle, hotel owners cater to practically every imaginable oddball interest.
Now, add paleontology to this list of niche themes.
The formerly mundane Best Western Denver Southwest has been transformed into a Jurassic period playground. The new "digs" feature dinosaur relics and quirky paleontological touches, from sandboxes where kids can go digging for fossils to a Pteranodon weathervane.
Located just outside of downtown Denver, the Best Western Denver Southwest is owned by husband and wife team Greg and Meredith Tally who, emerging from the Great Recession, knew their hotel needed a facelift to keep attracting visitors. Then came inspiration. One day, Greg was out hiking in the Dakota Hogback region of the Rockies, near Dinosaur Ridge, one of the world's most fertile fossil sites. "That set a light bulb off and made me realize, 'Why not remodel celebrating some of that unique paleo history we have right in our immediate area?'" he remembered.
Two years and almost $5 million dollars later, the renovated "Dino Hotel" opened for business in October of 2013. Greg and Meredith's vision was to create "an immersive experience," Greg said, "where you feel like you're walking into a 19th century explorer's club in the Gilded Age of dinosaur exploration."
While a staff handles the hotel's day-to-day operations, the couple oversees big picture vision and strategic planning, in between home schooling their two kids, Caroline, 14, and Joe, 12. Greg describes himself as a self-trained "armchair enthusiast" of paleontology, "more P.T. Barnum than E. D. Cope or O. C. Marsh," the two infamous dinosaur hunters whose rivalrous and backstabbing "Bone Wars" lasted from 1877 to 1892.
Naturally, the hotel is situated near Dinosaur Ridge, "where the first Stegosaurus came out of the ground," Tally said. Same with the first Apatosaurus (commonly known as Brontosaurus). These "rock stars of the dinosaur world," Tally said, are "just ten minutes from our front door," as is Dinosaur Ridge's Triceratops Trail. Also nearby are the Morrison Natural History Museum (10 minutes) and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (40 minutes), making the Tallys's hotel a perfect base for a dinosaur-themed vacation.
There's a lot riding on the hotel's success, including a mountain of debt. But the Best Western Denver Southwest's first summer has been "very busy," Greg said, and the Morrison Museum of Natural History has been "busier than it's ever been before" in part due to the Dino Hotel. Meanwhile, the husband and wife are gaining a reputation "as the 'Dino Guy' and 'Dino Gal'." At FantasyCon in Salt Lake City this July, Tally served on a panel with world-renowned paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker and Morrison Curator Matthew T. Mossbrucker. Their event, "Dinos Vs. Middle-earth," compared Tolkien's dragons, fell beasts and oliphaunts to dinosaurs, mammoths, and the fossil record. Tally later took the stage with "about a third of the cast of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings," he said in a recent Reddit AMA. "In terms of popular culture, dinosaurs never go out of fashion."
Interest in the extinct lizards is only going to grow in 2015, when both Jurassic World (to be released in June), the fourth in the Jurassic Park film series, and the Pixar kiddie cartoon The Good Dinosaur (November) will be hitting theaters.
The Best Western Southwest Denver's rather corporate website hardly does justice to the hotel's cool dino elements. In fact, aside from some concept drawings, there's little on the site to indicate this hotel has anything to do with paleontology. (Perhaps that's because the Tallys don't want their lodgings to be "off-putting to your average business traveller," Greg said.)
To better showcase the Tallys's big gamble, I asked Greg to give us an exclusive virtual tour. So get out your shovel and mattock, put on your Indiana Jones fedora, and keep your eye out for stray T-Rexes as we enter the Dino Hotel.
All photos courtesy of Best Western Denver Southwest
"If you pull up to the front of the hotel," said Greg Tally, co-owner of the Best Western Denver Southwest, aka the "Dino Hotel," "under the porte-cochère, there's a flagpole with a bunch of pit sandboxes where kids can go digging for fossils and find replicate dinosaurs in the ground. And then next to that is Stanley the Stegosaurus. Stanley is a white, fiberglass, hollow thing. People can easily pick him up and move him. Which is why he's in a cage. It's for his protection, not ours."
"That's in the parking lot of the hotel at our groundbreaking in December of 2012. I'm in a Jeep that was designed by Colorado Movie Cars, and I'm being chased by a local puppeteer by the name of Mr. Bones."
"If you come into the sliding glass doors, you'll be in the lobby. We did architectural salvage. … We purchased an early 20th century era bank lobby with a fireplace that's mahogany and pine, and we had some mill workers who were very talented guys, come in and build display cases. Some things are in cases, smaller things that otherwise might break or walk, but all the large skulls are 'Gentle Two Finger Touch,' as our signs ask people to do."
"We have a front desk that's a Moroccan stone that's full of embedded ammonites and Belemnites," Greg said, pictured here with his wife and hotel co-owner Meredith Tally. Behind them is a "dig panel of 'Wadsworth,' one of the resident Stegosauruses."
"Directly in front of you, if you walk in the door, will be a Tricerotops Montanus, which was a Ceratops similar to Triceratops. That is a huge skull." This fossil reproduction and other relics are "research-grade casts that are found in museums around the world. We did not skimp on the quality of the things that people could see in the lobby. The original fossils are worth millions and it's far beyond the budget of what the hotel could afford to do."
"You're also greeted by an Acrocanthosaurus skull and by some Brachiosaurus femurs. We have two of them." He called his hotel's casts "both a work of science and a work of art," and added that "other than cross sectioning them for bone, which you can do, you can use them for research and study and measurement. They're very, very accurate."
"Straight across from the lobby, you'll be at Paleo Joe's… We were able to coincide our opening with a visit from Matt Inman from The Oatmeal who was in town for Denver Comic Con. It's a bar and sandwich place. …. Inside Paleo Joe's we have Mosasaur named Sophie, or a Tylosaurus to be specific. She's so big, she's 40 feet long, she hangs in a series of panels and her head pokes out the door into the lobby."
"We had some very drab back walls … and we decided to install some murals. We put in a 'Story of Life' panel spiral of the different epochs, and we put in a mural of Ice Age Colorado, with a Columbian mammoth and a saber tooth cat and some ground sloths. And on the other walls we put some Cretaceous scenes of a T–Rex with a great expression where people can walk up and take their pictures, and he's alternately smiling, or saying, "Hi, you're my lunch." And then there's the Triceratops on the wall right next to them." Art is by Tom Ward, a Denver-based muralist.
"Inside, we obtained permission from the Yale Peabody Museum to reproduce some famous excerpts from Rudolph Zallinger's murals from the Age of Mammals and the Age of Reptiles. So we have a Permian staircase, a Jurassic staircase, a Cretaceous staircase, and an Ice Age staircase."
The pool, Tally said, was "Designed in the shape of the Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway of 85 million years ago. It's a zero point entry pool. It's like a beach. [It] starts covering just your toes and gradually gets deeper to five feet."