A glimpse inside the McDonald’s on Frontage Road in Oakwood reveals glass cabinets full of museum-quality dinosaur fossil replicas, including a Tyrannosaurus rex claw, a T. rex tooth and a dinosaur egg. Also on display along the walls are replicas of a 70 million-year-old mosasaurus fossil, which looks like an alligator with fins.
Other replicas of voracious predators on display include an ichthyosaurus that dates back to 206 million years ago and the impressive skull of a 710-pound saber-toothed tiger that grew up to 8 feet long and roamed North and South America as far back as 2.5 million years ago.
The educational exhibit came to fruition as a result of an unlikely partnership between Bob Swoszowski, who owns multiple local McDonald’s restaurants, and Pete Nesbitt, vice president of Paleo Collectibles, a dinosaur, plant and fish fossil reproduction company in Gainesville that ships replicas of rare and ancient fossils to private collectors nationwide.
"All children love dinosaurs. You see them in cartoons and in ‘Jurassic Park,’" Swoszowski said. "Our theme was, if the kids can’t get to the museum, then let’s bring the museum to the kids."
Nesbitt said the wide-eyed amazement he saw on the face of a 3-year-old gawking at the mosasaurus displayed at the restaurant sums up his goal in the joint venture.
Joe Wyant, president of Paleo Collectibles, said he jumped at the opportunity to display his company’s fossils in the restaurant that has some 40,000 visitors each month, many of whom are children.
"Although it’s not a huge official museum, it does give children the opportunity to see natural history displayed this way," Wyant said.
These replicas aren’t your run of the mill copies, he added.
The higher end pieces run up to $700, and all Paleo Collectibles’ replicas are molded from real dinosaur bones that Gainesville State College archaeology and anthropology professor Steve Nicklas unearthed from summer digs around the world.
Nicklas, who graduated from the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology with a doctorate in field archaeology, spends his summers traveling through the American West, South America, Russia and Ukraine collecting primarily dinosaur fossils. Upon returning to Gainesville with his rare finds, Nicklas delivers the fossils to Nesbitt.
With the help of Kate Perry, a Gainesville State College paleontology student, Nesbitt chisels the solidified dirt from Nicklas’ priceless finds and casts them to create exact copies. Perry, who has accompanied Nicklas on digs in Wyoming and South Dakota, then paints the replicas to recreate the color scheme of the real fossils.
"We put the two fossils — original and replica — side by side, and if you can tell a difference, we throw the replica out," Nesbitt said. "These are museum quality."
Wyant said the bones of large beasts displayed in museums typically are recreations. Due to the weight and multimillion-dollar price tag of real dinosaur bones, actual fossils often are kept behind closed doors for scientific study while museum-goers scrutinize replicas.
Perry said the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta is the nearest paleontology collection of the same caliber as the one on display at the Oakwood McDonald’s.
While many McDonald’s restaurants have entertainment themes, Swoszowski said he aimed to give his Oakwood restaurant an educational theme for kids who might not have access to fine paleontology museums in Atlanta, New York or Washington, D.C.
Swoszowski said his dinosaur-themed McDonald’s is breaking new ground in the fast-food industry.
"I’ve been in the business for 35 years, and to my knowledge, this is the first ... children’s educationally themed restaurant," he said.