What Does It Take to Get the Today Show to Visit Discovery Park of America?

-by Mary Nita Bondurant- Robert Kirkland, founder of Discovery Park of America, dreamed of national television publicity long before the park opened. The selection of a world- renowned architect and the distinctive architectural design were part of the plan to attract national media. Kirkland told the marketing team, “Buy a plane ticket and camp out at NBC’s door. You can get national publicity without hiring an ad agency. Just keep after it!”

The marketing team made calls, sent press releases, and even hired ad agencies. (Shh—don’t tell). The park got nation-wide Associated Press coverage for their 250,000th visitor and world-wide coverage for the 500,000th visitor, but the marketing team was not satisfied. Neither was CEO Jim Rippy. Discovery Park of America needed to be discovered by America, and national TV was the team’s goal. Newspapers and magazines accepted DPA articles. Glossy state-wide publications like Tennessee Magazine and Tennessee Home and Farm featured DPA. The team produced half-hour shows that aired on the History Channel. High-quality commercials ran in major markets like Nashville and Memphis. Attendance exceeded expectations, but DPA still had not received national television recognition. The team was not satisfied.

So, what would it take to get on national TV? Luck? Knowing the right people? A fire truck? A marching band? A billy goat? A crowd dressed in orange? Bingo! On November 5, 2015, park officials received a call from Cindy Dupree, PR director for Tennessee’s tourism department (the right person!). NBC’s Today Show had contacted her regarding weatherman Al Roker’s attempt to set a Guinness Book Record. He wanted to record the weather live in all 50 states (and DC) in seven days. Roker needed a stop in Tennessee (luck?) Cindy suggested DPA as the perfect location. After reviewing our website, NBC agreed and made top-secret phone call to us. It was finally going to happen. Discovery Park of America in Union City, TN (population 10,400) would be on national television on the Today show with more than 5.2 million viewers! Al Roker would make on his trek across America, the half-way point being the DPA stop—broadcast live on the Today Show. The marketing team and CEO were giddy.

But, wait. The Today show needed a few props. “What do you need?” we asked. A crowd, preferably wearing a Tennessee state color, maybe orange? Done. NBC gave us thumbs up to let the cat out of the bag. We invited DPA members and supporters to come out and see Al Roker. Community support was never in doubt. Park officials knew that the fine people in Union City and surrounding towns would come to see Al Roker, so we started to work on the security plan. Then came another call from NBC. “We need an unusual vehicle for Al to ride in.” We suggested a 1959 model antique fire truck recently given to DPA by Michael Wilson, Clinton, KY. It was in storage, but it would run and look beautiful on TV.

Four days before Al’s visit, the producer called again. “Does Union City have a band? And, can you have a goat there?” UCHS Band Director John Easley said, “Sure, we can be there on November 10th and play Rocky Top on the Today Show.” That very day, school officials ordered 130 orange tee-shirts so that the band would look good on TV. But what about the goat? DPA Aquarium and Wildlife Coordinator, Kacey King, called veterinarian, Dr. Leland Davis for help. Davis not only found a goat; but he got one that looked just like the one in Al’s videos. He even leash-trained the goat to prepare it for its national television debut. Tennessee orange, band playing Rocky Top, and a goat. What more could they ask for? Everything had fallen in place. Today Show chose Union City, Cindy Dupree, who recommended DPA, and the whole town was ready.

At 5:00 a.m. on broadcast day, Discovery Park staff members roped off parking spaces for six Today Show vehicles. Union City Police arrived to provide security. Crews from NBC-Memphis and WPSD-Paducah arrived, followed by NBC-Knoxville. Before 6:00 a.m., eager spectators arrived to be first in line. Newspaper reporters came from Union City, Dyersburg, Martin, Jackson and Murray, KY. UT-Martin sent a film crew, and the UCHS broadcasting class sent two young men to film the event. The band was ready. Goat looking good. The fire truck engine idling. A huge crowd, wearing orange, waited for the 8:30 broadcast.

We didn’t count on two things. The heavy fog wouldn’t lift, and Al Roker was “running behind.” The drive from Wickliffe, KY, took longer than planned. The crowd fidgeted. At 8:50, the Today Show crew arrived. Roker jumped out of his vehicle and onto the fire truck—just in time. Today Show anchors Hall and Geist were signing off for the day, telling the world they were tossing to Al Roker, live in Union City, Tennessee, at Discovery Park of America. The camera fired up, and there he was—Al Roker, hanging on the running board of a 1959 fire truck and telling the world that he was at Discovery Park of America. He showed the world the goat, the crowd, and the band. And, just like that, it was over. The world didn’t get to see Al leading the Golden Tornadoes as they marched down the boulevard playing Rocky Top. But, thanks to Al, Union City and Discovery Park of America were officially introduced to the world.

CEO Jim Rippy told the crowd, “Today is a great day for Discovery Park, for Union City, for Obion County and for Northwest, Tennessee.” We finally got the national publicity that Robert Kirkland dreamed of. All it took was luck, knowing the right person, a crowd, a fire truck, a band, and a billy goat.