- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

ORLANDO, Fla. - The first thing you probably will notice is the shark. At 17 feet long, it’s the biggest ever caught on rod and reel. What is left of its 2 terrifying tons now hangs preserved above a dull warehouse floor.

There are also medieval torture devices, human skull drinking glasses, a Coke-bottle-shaped coffin and a curious mix of embalmed livestock born with too many heads or limbs. These items and many more are stored in a Central Florida warehouse, all without an audience.

But their owner, Ripley Entertainment Inc., is doing its best to change that. The Orlando company of “Believe It or Not” fame has announced rapid expansion plans over the next year and a half, including at least four new locations from Spain to New York City, where those lonely curiosities would find homes.

Ripley has doubled in size every three years for the past 15, and now boasts annual attendance of more than 12 million. Its more than 50 attractions go beyond the standby “Believe it or Not” museums to include two aquariums, a few Guinness World Record and wax museums, haunted houses, a miniature golf course and a moving theater.

Then there is the syndicated TV show and rights to a library of bizarre facts licensed for everything from state lotteries to pinball machines. The company even does its own wax and costume work out of its Florida headquarters.

It all started from the curious pen of founder and adventurer Robert Ripley, who began drawing the Believe It or Not cartoon for newspapers in 1918.

“The difference today from where we were is the magnitude of the projects we’re involved in,” Chief Executive Officer Bob Masterson said. “We went from doing small attractions — museum-type attractions, which have been our bread and butter for 50 years — to building signature inns.”

The biggest of those is the Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, Ontario, which will feature 406 all-suite guest rooms when it opens in the spring, plus a 76,000-square-foot indoor water park with a treehouse fort.

“That’s so far beyond what we were doing 15 years ago, but it really highlights what’s happening in our company,” Mr. Masterson said. “Life is good for us.”

Of course, any new attraction wouldn’t be Ripley’s without the surreal, and that is collected here in spades.

The keeper, as it were, of those storied treasures is Edward Meyer, a self-described library-science dropout who as vice president of exhibits and archives is Ripley’s main shopper.

Even his office is weird, with its own collection of oddities including a human scalp, a Mother Teresa figurine made out of chewing gum and a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby-red “Wizard of Oz” slippers.

His favorite? Twelve pieces of belly-button lint retrieved over time and sent in by one man who thought it strange and noteworthy they were all the same color.

“I get the best mail in the world,” Mr. Meyer said from behind his cluttered desk.

Walking around the warehouse’s endless aisles of shrunken heads, antique East Asian furniture and walking canes made into guns, Mr. Meyer can explain each one.

He has acquired an estimated 95 percent of Ripley’s collection and shares the same endless fascination with otherworldly items that made the well-traveled, real-life Ripley an entertainment baron.

“I put myself in his shoes every day. What would Ripley think? What would Ripley do?” he said.

A few feet away, Mr. Meyer walks past a riding lawn mower that was driven across the country, the world’s biggest rocking chair, the world’s tallest ridable bike and a 1932 Studebaker once modified into a “jockey hearse” to carry fallen riders off horse tracks.

Its neighbors in storage include entire sections of the Berlin Wall and a multimillion-dollar 1988 Lincoln Town Car covered entirely in gold coins.

Mr. Meyer’s prize possession is way in the back — maybe the last thing you would see on a winding walking tour: A just-acquired 700-pound elephant head with two trunks, both DNA-tested to ensure they are real and belonged to the same animal.

“He will be the exhibit,” Mr. Meyer said in front of the creature, whose skin still prickles to the touch with small hairs.

That is, when they determine just where the peculiar pachyderm will go. Maybe New York City, maybe San Antonio or maybe somewhere else.

Either way, Mr. Meyer’s constant acquisitions will ensure it won’t be the last item to enter and leave the warehouse purgatory of the weird.

“There’s got to always be stuff in here,” Mr. Meyer said, “so we can sell it to the next franchise.”

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