This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
The real story behind Ripley’s Odditorium is the man known as Robert Ripley. Born in 1890, his greatest desire was to have a career as a pitcher in professional baseball. But after breaking his arm in his first semi-professional game, he turned to sketching cartoons of sports events.
Ripley started stringing together lists of odd sports facts in his cartoons. It turned out this format was so poplar that he began adding all kinds of interesting facts: human, scientific, supernatural, etc. It wasn’t long before he was traveling to other countries to gather more odd facts. During his career, he traveled to over 200 countries. As he collected information, he also began collecting artifacts. His phrase, “Believe it or not!” became a common icon of America.
The first odditorium was opened in 1933 at the World’s Fair in Chicago, as a place to deposit all of Ripley’s collections. It was just the first in a chain of museums that continue to amaze visitors today. I’d never been to any of the ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’ odditoriums, although I had certainly heard of Ripley and read many of his published cartoons when I was younger. When I was invited to visit Ripley’s Odditorium in Orlando, Florida, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited to see a portion of Ripley’s huge collection. I felt a certain kinship with Ripley because of his love for travel and exploration (and collecting interesting things).
I wasn’t disappointed in the collection. From shrunken heads and pictures painted on a grain of rice, to two-headed calves and portraits made of computer keyboard keys, there was no shortage of interesting and even unbelievable feats or facts. At the Odditorium, there are also interactive displays — optical illusions to test your perception, puzzles, and quizzes, as well as tests of skill. There are videos to watch and microscopes to peer into. There’s even a room that will convince you your world has just turned topsy-turvy. In fact, the building itself looks like it has begun to sink into one of Florida’s famous sinkholes!
Ripley, the Man
But for me, it still came back to what I thought about Ripley. Put aside all the incredible items he’s collected over the years. Forget about the fact that not even one of Ripley’s truths has ever been proven wrong. The man himself is incredible enough.
Did you know that Ripley received no formal education? That he owned several cars, but never learned how to drive? In the midst of the depression, he was earning $500,000 a year. He received over 1 million letters a year. He published dozens of books, started a hugely successful TV series, and never once in 30 years, did he fail to produce a daily cartoon. In 1936, he was voted the most popular man in the United States.
During his lifetime, Robert Ripley was always searching for new and unbelievable human feats and fact. His curiosity was insatiable; his hunger to do and learn unsatisfied. It is unfortunate that his life was cut short by a heart attack at only 55 years. (At 54, I feel like I am just getting started really exploring the world). I can’t even imagine what else Ripley would have discovered for us to be entertained by!
In the Odditorium, I learned there was a man who spent 29 years of his life trying to prove that Robert Ripley could not always be right. His name was Wayne Harbour. I can understand the temptation to accept Ripley’s challenge, “Believe It or Not!” Mr. Harbour wrote over 24,000 letters of inquiry and receive 11,000 replies. 4300 letters were returned and 8800 were never accounted for. Mr. Harbour kept all his letters in scrapbooks (and there were a few displayed at the Odditorium). When he died in 1981, he claimed that in 29 years of trying, he had never once received a reply that disproved any of Ripley’s cartoon facts!
It makes complete sense to me that Ripley’s cartoons and artifacts would continue to attract attention, incredulity, and even fame. Ripley was an enigma all by himself. He was and continues to be intriguing and even mysterious. If you haven’t been to one of Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not!’ Odditoriums, I suggest you do. Of the many sights and attractions I visited in Orlando, the Odditorium really held my fascination. I easily spent nearly two hours there, and if I hadn’t been on a schedule, I might have spent the entire day. And then, I would only partially understand just who Ripley was.
Want to discover the oddities and fascination that are behind the man, Robert Ripley? Be sure to visit one of his Odditoriums or other attractions. Did you know there are over 95 attractions in 11 countries worldwide? There are aquariums, wax museums, theaters, Guiness World Record museums, and more…I had no idea!
So, wherever you are in the world, be sure to check out Ripley’s. And if you’re in Orlando, you can visit the same odditorium I went to. The price is $19.99 for adults and $12.99 for kids. If you buy your tickets online, it’s only $16.99 for adults and $10.99 for kids. Parking is free, and the Odditorium is conveniently located on International Drive, close to other Orlando attractions. Take your entire family, because there’s something for everyone! What do you most want to see?
I would like to thank Ripley’s Odditorium in Orlando for hosting me and opening my eyes to all things Ripley!