They lined up to be ‘immersed’ in the hills

By Burk Krohe

The $24.5 million Discovery Center opened its doors Sunday to fulfill a mission statement committing it “to celebrate, explore and care for the Flint Hills.”

Those attending Saturday’s dedicatory events got a first look at a facility designed to be a showpiece of the south redevelopment area.  Visitors were greeted with an overview of the Flint Hills history, which starts with the formation of the hills millions of years ago. Exhibits include the underground forest, which shows visitors the unseen portion of the Flint Hills. Seven-foot Blue Stem grass roots, a multi-media presentation on the roll of fire in the Flint Hills and the history of the region’s various settlers tell the Flint Hills’ story.

However, the main attraction — judging by the line Saturday — was the “immersive experience.” It is a 15-minute “presentation film,” by Donna Lawrence Productions, of Louisville, which plays on a large screen with effects such as fog, mist and wind in the room itself as visitors watch. The film will also change depending on the season.

Bob Workman, Discovery Center director, said the opening lived up to expectations.

“To me, this is why we worked so hard through the all planning process and the construction,” Workman said.

Workman said the Discovery Center gave out all 1,350 “timed tickets.” The tickets were available at 9 a.m., although people were lined up for them at 8 a.m., for the 11:30 a.m. opening. The tickets were organized to ensure an even flow of visitors, who were able to select which hour, 11:30 to 4:30 p.m., they wanted to enter. After 5:30 p.m. the doors were opened to all.

“Now, really, the work begins because it’s all about the visitor,” Workman said. “It’s all about getting people in here and having that wonderful experience where they get excited about our Flint Hills.”

Visitors, residents and local officials alike, were impressed with the exhibits. City commissioners had the opportunity to go through the Discovery Center—some more than once—before it opened Saturday.

“I’ve been through it many, many times,” Sherow said. “I think I could almost recite much of it from heart.”

Commissioner Wynn Butler said it would be a “great thing for people to visit.”

“It’s quite impressive,” Butler said. “There’s things in there that I didn’t know about the Flint Hills, so I learned a couple things.”

Shelby Adams and Amy Eshelman, Washburn University students, were moved by the detail in the exhibits.

“It’s amazing,” Eshelman said. “They captured the Flint Hills so perfectly.”

They said the underground forest, the immersive experience and the general interactivity were particularly interesting. They also seemed confident that the Discovery Center would be a major draw for Manhattan.

“I think Manhattan has something really great on its hands, and I think people will love coming here,” Adams said.

But Workman knows there is still work to be done to make sure people keep filling the Discovery Center.

“This is the start of the next phase,” Workman said.

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