I was 6 when I first saw the Cabazon Dinosaurs. It was a hot, sticky summer morning in the Midwest, and I wanted nothing more than to stay inside, with the air conditioner on full blast, and drink ice-cold root beer all day. I asked my grandmother if she had any movies I could watch, and from a stack of old VHS tapes I selected the whimsical and slightly unsettling 1985 Tim Burton feature Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
In the film, Pee-wee Herman embarks on a cross-country search for his stolen bicycle. At one point, he accepts a ride from a truck driver named Large Marge while hitchhiking along a strip of highway in the middle of the night. She drops him off at the Wheel Inn Café, where a pair of giant dinosaurs glows red and green in the background, and yells, “Be sure to tell ’em Large Marge sent ya!”
• For more photos of the Cabazon Dinosaurs, click HERE.
Those words came to mind three years ago when I moved to Palm Springs and realized this was where that terrifying scene from my childhood was filmed.
At the time the film was made, the Cabazon Dinosaurs were in their infancy. Theme-park artist and sand sculptor Claude Bell supposedly began creating the steel-and-concrete dinosaurs in the 1960s to attract travelers to his Wheel Inn Restaurant. It took him 11 years to complete the largest figure, a 150-foot-long brontosaurus known as “Dinny” (pronounced Dine-y). The green, 65-foot T. Rex (Mr. Rex) soon followed and was one of the last creatures Bell worked on before he died.
The life-size creatures have remained a popular roadside attraction for those traveling on Interstate 10. They are so out of place and anachronistic that they have become almost timeless.
The site is now owned by creationists, who have added more than 50 dinosaur replicas to the original duo, constructing what is essentially a mini Jurassic Park. Visitors can climb to the top of Mr. Rex; explore the gift shop inside of Dinny, brimming with dino-themed souvenirs and caveman tchotchkes; or pay for admission to enter the on-site museum.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains one of the Cabazon Dinosaurs’ biggest on-screen roles to date, though they have also appeared in a commercial for Coca-Cola, music videos, and, in recent years, social media feeds. Last March, the Kardashian sisters posed in front of Mr. Rex for an Instagram photo that later appeared in a People magazine story — with the headline “Kim Kardashian Says Her Palm Springs Favorites Include Cheese Fries, a Giant Dinosaur, and a Former Family Home.”
Even the rich and famous revel in the nostalgia and kitschy charm of these roadside landmarks — or, at least, the great photo-op.