- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

SHANGHAI (AP) — Nearly a century after Robert Ripley first visited and fell in love with things Chinese, the company that inherited his “Believe It or Not” legacy is headed back here for business.

Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. is among many international amusement park and attractions companies that are searching for opportunities to profit from the increasing ability and willingness of the 1.3 billion Chinese to spend on entertainment and travel.

“We have had a strong interest in China for a long time,” said Bob Masterson, president of Ripley Entertainment, in Shanghai to attend a regional industry show.

The company hopes to more than replicate its successful “Believe It or Not” attraction that prospered for years atop Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak before it was forced to close for renovations.

“We’d love to still be in there,” Mr. Masterson said in an interview.

The Hong Kong experience taught Orlando, Fla.-based Ripley’s that China has a healthy appetite for the oddities that are its main business, he said.

No arts and crafts stuff — the Chinese want weird.

“The stranger the better,” he said. “They really want something that’s strange and bizarre.”

That might include a model of the Chinese man Ripley’s says had a hole bored in his skull to carry a candle in. Or a stuffed elephant head with two trunks. Or even a solid jade rickshaw Ripley brought back from China during his travels in the 1920s and 30s.

Mr. Masterson said that the company, owned by Canadian billionaire Jim Pattison, has been researching the Chinese market for years and hopes to have an attraction open in China by this time next year.

The southwestern city of Kunming and northeastern cities of Tianjin, near Beijing, are likely candidates, he said.

“We want the domestic tourists,” he said. “We see the biggest revenues not in Shanghai or Beijing but in places like Kunming. If they have domestic tourists, we’re interested.”

Mr. Masterson says his experience waiting 45 minutes in a line at Kunming’s Wal-Mart store convinced him of the city’s potential for attractions.

“It was roast chicken,” he said. “And I guarantee you everybody in that line cooked chicken better than they [Wal-Mart] did. But people were prepared to pay a premium for not doing something.”

Mr. Masterson said the company may open attractions in the gambling enclave of Macau, now in the midst of an economic revival powered by foreign casino operators such as the Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and MGM Mirage.

“But it’s a little too early to say,” he said.

Ripley’s is in the midst of a rapid expansion and has recently announced several new locations, from Spain to New York. About 12 million people visit the company’s attractions each year.

The company’s Believe It or Not museums can be found in Canada, Australia, Europe, Kuwait, Malaysia and Thailand, as well as Atlantic City, N.J.

Ripley’s also runs aquariums, spook houses, 4-D moving theaters, where the seats move in time to the action on the screen, and Louis Tussaud’s wax museums.

It has a Guinness World Records museum in the Tokyo Tower in Japan.

Ripley traveled to about 200 countries while hunting the exotic, unique and peculiar, but China was his most enduring obsession. He died of a heart attack in 1949.

According to company lore, Ripley thought he was a Chinese reincarnated as an American.

He adopted Chinese dress and customs, filled his homes with Chinese artworks and bought a Chinese sailing junk and for a time signed his cartoons “Rip Li.”

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