If you’ve ever visited a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium (BION) you may have wondered where all these strange, shocking, and beautiful exhibits come from. I did, but now I’ve found out. Believe it or not, they come from Orlando, Florida. With more than 100 attractions, the Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment Group, a division of the Jim Pattison Group, is a global company with an annual attendance of more than 14 million guests.
Unlike the bizarre facades that front the 30 current Ripley’s locations, Ripley Entertainment is located in a nondescript building in an industrial mall not far from IAAPA’s international headquarters. There’s a small sign on the front door. It’s not open to the public, but inside is a sprawling warehouse filled with wonders. If Ripley’s want to open a new Odditorium, it will be stocked from this collection. If a current Ripley’s BION needs a fresh exhibit, it comes from here. I had to see for myself. This would be better than visiting any single Ripley’s BION site.
I was welcomed by Kurtis Moellmann, Ripley’s Exhibit Coordinator. “Every new exhibit we acquire comes to our warehouse first to be cataloged,” he explained. “The warehouse stores and coordinates shipping exhibits to Ripley locations across the globe. Most of our shipping is for our Odditoriums, but we do handle shipping for our other attractions too. Today, we have close to 30,000 items in our collection, and the warehouse stores about 30% of that. The majority of our collection is on display inside our attractions.”
In addition to the 30,000 artifacts, the Ripley collection includes 20,000 photographs and more than 100,000 cartoon panels. Want to see a shrunken head? Ripley’s has a drawer filled with them. They’ve cornered the market on shrunken heads, owning most of them in North America. Importation of shrunken heads is now forbidden, so that portion of their collection is finite. How about two-headed animals? They have a lot of these, too, appropriately taxidermied. Would you like to see the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore when she breathlessly sang “Happy Birthday” to President John Kennedy? It’s here, shimmering on a Marilyn-sized mannequin.
There was a car made of lottery tickets, one made of matchsticks, several tiny road-ready autos, models of the world’s tallest man, the fattest man, tiniest woman, snake charmers, human skulls, mannequin heads of famous people, lizard man, motorcycles made of bones, and a 20 foot (6 m) tall model of a Ferris wheel made with Erector set parts. They store copies of every book published by Ripleys, plus recordings of every radio show and tapes of every TV show. In a climate controlled room are all the original writings and cartoons of Robert Ripley himself.
I was so inspired by this visit that I followed it with a visit to the nearest Ripley’s BION, the one on International Drive in Orlando. Here I sat with the bug-eyed man pictured here, towered over a tiny car, and posed behind a model of the world’s fattest man. Believe it or not, it was a fascinating day.