UNION CITY, Tenn. - When Discovery Park of America opened on a cornfield in rural Tennessee, its founders expected the museum described as a "mini-Smithsonian" to draw about 150,000 visitors in its first year.
They exceeded that goal by 120,000, with a total of 270,000 people visiting since the museum opened Nov. 1, 2013.
School groups and repeat visitors attracted by fun, educational exhibits have led attendance figures to blow past expectations for this one-of-a-kind museum located in Union City, Tennessee, a town of 11,000 located a few hours' drive from Memphis, Nashville and St. Louis. Discovery Park CEO Jim Rippy said attendance could hit 300,000 by the end of this calendar year.
Union City resident Robert Kirkland, who built a fortune with a chain of home decor stores and smart investments, has given $85 million from his foundation to build and expand the museum, Rippy said.
But when the museum opened, nobody could predict whether visitors would be willing to drive a couple of hours to the small-town museum, and if Union City had enough hotels and restaurants to accommodate them.
So far, museum employees, city officials, townspeople and tourists are thrilled with the museum's popularity.
"We're out here in rural America, and I think the exhibits are such quality and the word spreads," Rippy said. "They don't expect something like this to be out in the country. They expect something like this to be in Atlanta, Chicago, New York."
With its bright-white exterior and curved facades, Discovery Park sits near Interstate 55, U.S. Highway 51 and the Interstate 69 corridor. It has exhibits about natural and regional history, dinosaurs, Native Americans, energy, transportation, science, the military and space flight.
An earthquake simulator causes the floor to tremble, a 120-foot (36-meter) glass observation tower offers stunning views, and a 50-foot (15-meter) metal replica of the human body includes a 32-foot (10-meter) slide. The 50-acre (20-hectare) complex also boasts an old train depot, a century-old church, a rotating grist mill, antique tractors, log cabins and flower gardens, giving a glimpse of what life was once like in rural America.
A children's section includes the "Crawlers Cove" for infants and the "Fantasy Forest" for toddlers. Adults enjoy the "libation station," where they can socialize on weekends, while outdoor concerts also keep the older crowd coming. Santa Claus is expected to make an appearance during Christmas-time.
"You can't do it all in a day. That's impossible," said Rippy, who adds that 17,000 memberships have been sold to repeat visitors.
Susan Searcy, a guidance counselor at Union City Elementary, has visited several times with groups of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students. She also goes regularly with her husband and three children.
"The kids that I take, I see no dampening of their enthusiasm, even if it has been open for a year," Searcy said. "Discovery Park is not a flash in the pan. It's going to be here for a long time."
The next challenge is to maintain the momentum the museum created in its first year. After focusing advertising on the Nashville region in its first year, the museum's marketing staff will target tourists from Memphis in its second year, Rippy says.
New exhibits are on the way, including a mock-up of the moon that will make it appear as if the heavenly body has landed on Earth.
There's also a Titanic exhibit coming next year, said Rippy, a lifelong friend of Kirkland who had been retired for all of one day when his old bud asked him to help get the museum off the ground.
"We're not a Disney World. We're an educational thing that has caught on," said Rippy.
Officials say the museum is helping Union City recover from the loss of a Goodyear tire plant that closed in July 2011, taking 1,800 jobs with it.
Union City Mayor Terry Hailey says monthly sales tax revenues have increased 5 to 6 percent from last year. Work also is being done to attract more hotels and restaurants to make Discovery Park a viable tourist venue in the long term.
Rippy, the museum CEO, says Kirkland took a risk with his investment, but it's paid off so far.
"His idea was that people in rural America, where we live, can't all go to Nashville or Chicago or Atlanta, so let's bring stuff to them," Rippy said. "They can see stuff they never, ever would see."