The museum exhibits are taken from the Old Testament, but the special effects are pure Hollywood: a state-of-the-art planetarium, animatronics and a massive model of Noah's Ark, all intended to explain the origins of the universe from a biblical viewpoint.
The Creation Museum, which teaches life's beginnings through a literal interpretation of the Bible, is claiming attendance figures that would make it an unexpectedly strong draw less than a year and a half after it debuted. More than a half-million people have toured the Kentucky attraction since its May 2007 opening, museum officials said.
For creationists — Christians who believe the Bible's first chapter of Genesis is the literal telling of the universe's start — the museum is a godsend. Many have returned with family and friends, some from faraway states arguing it's one of the few with a Christian worldview.
Many scientists say they fear damaging effects on science education when young people tour the museum and fail to square its lessons with what they're learning in school. One display shows humans coexisting with dinosaurs — despite the two species being separated by 65 million years in most science texts.
"We're depressed, I think," said Dan Phelps, head of the Kentucky Paleontology Society, who toured the museum shortly after its opening. "There's been such a push in recent years to improve science education, but stuff like this still hangs around."
Phelps said he fears some teachers, shying away from the origins controversy, may choose to omit mentioning evolution studies in the classroom.
State education officials said they have seen no sign of students challenging science teachers in their classrooms based on conclusions drawn from visits to the Creation Museum.
"It's not been a huge issue. In fact it's almost a nonissue for public schools," said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. "Teachers have been dealing with these things long before the Creation Museum came into being."
The Creation Museum doesn't draw nearly as many visitors as the nation's top science museums, which boast larger facilities and government funding. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington attracted 5.8 million visitors in 2006; the Children's Museum in Indianapolis brought in 1.2 million that year, according to a list compiled by Forbes magazine.
But for its size and budget — it took $27 million in private donations to build — the museum has been an overwhelming success, founder Ken Ham said.
The museum in rural northern Kentucky, a 30-minute drive south of Cincinnati, has drawn more than 550,000 visitors in 15 1/2 months, by its own count.
Regular visitors pay $20 for admission, but about 10 percent were admitted for free over the last 15 months, museum officials said. Ham said it draws families, home-schooled children, Christian school groups and even many skeptics.
Inside, evolution is replaced with the Old Testament stories of Adam and Eve as the first humans and Noah rescuing the human race from a worldwide flood.
Ham feels the sleek presentation puts it on par with well-funded science museums. Patrick Marsh, who helped create exhibits at Universal Studios in Orlando, was brought in as the museum's director of design.
"We made a decision quite a few years ago, that we wanted to do it first-class ... as good as you would see at museums or Disney World or Universal Studios," Ham said. "It's become an attraction in its own right, regardless of the message that we have here."
One visitor, Bill Michaletz, drove his family from Wisconsin in May.
"I do believe in creation, that God created it all," said Michaletz, who has five children. "I'm appreciative that there is a place to go for ourselves and our kids, to look at that view."