A nondescript warehouse in Allen is home to 400 animatronic creatures—dinosaurs and bugs—including 17 full-size T-rexes.
I’m surrounded. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end; my palms begin to sweat. To my left, a Utahraptor bares his teeth, an alligator lies in wait and a Madagascan Sunset Moth is poised to take flight. To my right, a Diabloceratops stands his ground, a 3-foot Orb Weaver cowers on his web and a giant caterpillar sleeps in the shadows. Behind me, so close I can almost feel his breath, a T-rex towers 18-feet into the air, his powerful jaw open wide in a roar.
I’m not dreaming and I’m not in a theme park; I’m on a tour of Billings Productions Inc., in Allen, just down the road from Cabela’s and Target. Outside, it’s an ordinary sunny day in Texas; inside, I’ve stepped back in time millions of years…flanked by a multitude of life-sized dinosaurs and an uncomfortable number of larger-than-life bugs. Billings Productions is a world leader in the design and development of animatronic exhibits for zoos, museums and theme parks. From where I’m standing it’s easy to see why.
“As far as production on this scale, it’s us and China,” says Director of Exhibit Displays, Robby Gilbert. “We’re very unique,” he adds.
Billings Productions pride themselves on being the best at creating temporary animatronic exhibits. Each dinosaur, or 24-ft tarantula, is programmed to simulate lifelike movements. They turn their heads from side to side, they swish their tails, their chests move in and out and, of course, their mouths open and close as they bare their teeth and roar. Even the eyes move. More sophisticated than that and you’re talking about a multi-million dollar production dreamed up by Disney’s Imagineers. “The dying Apatosaurus in Jurassic World has similar animatronic capabilities to our creatures–he looks real, his head and tail move, but it’s slow, small movements. The T-rex, the raptors—they’re in a different league,” Robby explains.
Locally, the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary holds an annual show using the Billings Productions’ animatronics. Dinosaurs Live! runs every year from September to February and boasts 14 dinosaurs nestled along a nature trail. You may also have seen them at the Dallas Zoo which hosted a Giants of the Jurassic exhibit in 2015. Further afield, their biggest show is at the Detroit Zoo, but they’re also in Europe, Japan, China and Australia.
In addition to building animatronics for their own collection, Billings Productions also takes on commissions. Their website reads: “Mammuthus, Giant Sloth and Elephant Bird. If you need a static or animatronic creature that’s not in our collection, talk to us.”
They’re yet to craft a Mammuthus, otherwise known as a Wooly Mammoth, but commissioned works are a big part of their business. Right now they’re working on an animatronic dolphin being modified for an aquarium and at the Dallas Zoo there’s an elephant bottom which can be pressed to make noises. They’re even collaborating with the Phoenix Zoo on a Christmas-themed show—including a dinosaur pulling a sleigh. The most popular request, however, is for “themed” dinosaurs: A Carnotaurus painted like a tiger to promote a Big Cats exhibit or a Coelophysis resembling an endangered lizard to promote conservation.
One special project they’re working on is for KultureCity, a nonprofit advocating for acceptance and inclusion for children with autism. In collaboration with zoos and museums, Billings Productions is creating touchable dinosaur wall panels for Sensory Rooms as quiet places to enjoy an exhibit away from all the stimulation of a traditional show.
Their bugs are a secondary endeavor. They have four sets of bugs and unlike the dinosaurs, which are often a stand-alone exhibit, the bugs are frequently used to complement a show with live creepy crawlies.
As I stroll around the prehistoric wilderness, I can’t help but ask, “What else?”
“That’s the million-dollar question. What’s that third exhibit? Dinosaurs, bugs and what? Ice-age creatures…dragons?” It’s clear Robby, who has a degree in Criminal Justice and was once a stay-at-home dad, has been thinking about this. But he doesn’t have an answer yet.
While we wait for his next big idea, Collin County’s coolest company has their hands full with some exciting partnerships on the horizon. “We’re in talks with a number of big theme parks,” he confides. If that happens, Robby’s dream of making A-Grade animatronics—with the kind of terrifyingly life-like movements you only see in the movies—may well come true…and perhaps we’ll spot a Stegosaurus or an Iguanodon strolling through the streets of Allen.