The kids were down for their naps and my husband and I had just put our feet up, when we heard a series of muffled thumps coming from the vicinity of the boys' bedroom. I got up to investigate.
Peering through the partly open door, I watched my 3 1/2 -year-old son, who was wearing his bicycle helmet, charge the wall like an angry bull, butting his head hard against it.
"Willie, what are you doing?"
Startled, he fixed me with intent eyes and said matter-of-factly: "I'm a Pachycephalosaurus, Mom."
"A pack-ee-SEF-a-lo-SAUR-us. You know, Mom. It's a dinosaur with an armored head that butts things."
But of course.
It is safe to say that almost everything I know about dinosaurs, I learned from my preschooler (or at least from books I've read to my preschooler). The kid is a walking encyclopedia of dinosaur lore, and he is hardly alone. The long-extinct beasts have been a source of widespread public interest ever since the first dino fossils -- petrified bones from a meat-eater of the genus megalosaurus -- were identified in Oxfordshire, England, in 1824.
Last year's hit film "Jurassic Park" won legions of new fans and spurred an avalanche of books, toys, clothing and other commercial products. Dinomania hit America like a sledgehammer: Museums and theme parks around the country scrambled to stage dinosaur exhibits, and visits to real-life fossil sites such as Dinosaur National Monument, on the Colorado-Utah border, soared.
With this weekend's opening of "The Flintstones," it appears the surge of interest continues unabated.
"They're big, they're awesome and they're dead" is how Ray Ann Havasy sums up the prehistoric beasts' appeal. Ms. Havasy is executive director of the Dinosaur Society, a 3-year-old, nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging dinosaur research and education around the world.
Among its diverse activities, which range from funding scientific research to reviewing the accuracy of dinosaur toys, the society acts as a resource center for parents, children and teachers. One of its primary educational missions is to get children interested in science and math through the study of you-know-whats.
Toward that end, the society publishes Dino Times, a monthly newsletter for children and parents, and has just come out with its first Guide to Vacationing with the Dinosaurs -- a publication to be compiled annually in response to what Ms. Havasy says is an area of intense interest among people calling society headquarters in East Islip, N.Y.
Detailing 28 organizations or sites offering fossil-related summer programs in the United States and Canada, the guide has something to pique the interest of everyone from casual dinosaur fans to serious amateur paleontologists. Although a number of trips are museum- or university-sponsored and have a definite academic bent, the listing "is pretty much geared to family trips -- not to the professional who wants to hop onto a scientific research expedition," Ms. Havasy says.
The offerings, which range from actual fossil digs to national-park programs and even a dinosaur festival, are tantalizing enough to plan a vacation -- or at least a vacation detour -- around.
In the desert Southwest, for example, you might want to visit Petrified Forest National Park, Ariz. The park's "Triassic Park" program, a series of talks and films about Triassic life and sites in the park, will be held June through August. The program is free with park admission of $5 per car. Call ahead (602) 524-6228 for information.
Dino-loving families might also want to take in Dinosaur Days, a July 21-24 festival in and around Grand Junction, Colo., that includes a dinosaur parade, a "stegosaurus stomp" street dance and the Pteranodon Ptrot, a 5K walk/run race (303) 244-1480.
If the kids are seriously interested in pursuing their dinosaur studies, consider signing up for Family Dino Camp, a series of five-day, hands-on adventures in dinosaur science held near Grand Junction. The program includes hikes, lab work, fossil excavation and tons of activities for the youngsters (303) 244-1480.
Other paleontology field experiences, ranging from day hikes to camping excursions lasting a week or more, include a dino dig for teens sponsored by the Denver Museum of Natural History; a tour of Canadian fossil sites sponsored by the Smithsonian for people 55 and older; and a series of three dino digs and related field expeditions (one to Siberian Russia) put on by the University Research Expeditions Program of the University of California at Davis.
The dinosaur vacation directory, Ms. Havasy says, is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to fossil sites, museum exhibits or paleontology programs (although a museum guide is in the works). But for families or individuals who want to cultivate an interest in dinosaurs, it's a great place to start. Vacationing with Dinosaurs is $5 from the Dinosaur Society, 200 Carleton Ave., East Islip, N.Y. 11730; (800) DINO-DON -- that's (800) 346-6366.