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COMPANY TOWN : Believe It : Ripley Entertainment Is Thriving With Its String of Low-Tech Museums


Believe it or not: Alexander Patty could walk up and down staircases on his head.

Believe it or not: Slater Barron created a portrait of John Wayne out of laundry lint.

Believe it or not: A company based on sharing such oddities with the public is thriving in today's entertainment market, which is otherwise trending toward the elaborate and the high-tech.

Ripley Entertainment, the Orlando, Fla.-based chain that operates 38 attractions in 12 countries, says it's enjoying a banner year. In February, the originator of the Believe It or Not museums purchased the rights to nine Guinness World of Records exhibitions, the company's only major competitor. Ripley also plans to open five new locations before the year is out.

That seems to fly in the face of industry trends. Mega-amusement parks tout elaborate new attractions such as Universal Studios' "Back to the Future--The Ride" and Disneyland's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye" in an attempt to draw visitors. Amusement centers based on virtual reality adventures are popping up in strip malls and next to movie theaters.

But Ripley--a subsidiary of the privately-held Jim Pattison Group of Vancouver, Canada--steadfastly refuses to follow that trend. Instead, the company has carved out a niche for itself that caters to people's curiosity and sense of weirdness. Ripley Entertainment's Believe It or Not, Guinness World of Records and Louis Trussaud's Waxworks attractions survive on the mega-park leftovers.

"The newer, state-of-the-art kinds of attractions that have a high entertainment value draw the crowds. The Ripley exhibits are a product of another time," said James Cammisa, publisher of Travel Industry Indicators, a travel trend newsletter.

Ripley Entertainment President Bob Masterson is not shy about admitting this. In fact, he says it's the secret to the company's success. Attendance at Ripley attractions has more than doubled in the past five years, and the company is on a pace to welcome more than 10 million visitors in 1995, he said.

In a bow to the high-tech, Ripley operates two Motion Master Theaters--computer-controlled simulation rides complete with moving seats--and is beginning to dabble in the CD-ROM business. But the heart of the company--and the bulk of its revenue--is firmly rooted in another era, Masterson said.

"Universal Studios is a destination. Ripley's and Guinness are impulse items," he said. "We locate where there's a high volume of people who come there for another reason."

Like Hollywood Boulevard, for example. The Believe It or Not museum on the famous boulevard counts on walk-ins for 80% of its business, General Manager John Serge said. Because the attractions are inexpensive to operate--Serge is one of only six employees--it doesn't take much to turn a profit, Masterson said.

Included among the 300 displays in the Hollywood museum are a vampire-killing kit from 1850, a fur-covered trout, the skeleton of a two-headed baby and a stuffed six-legged cow. There is also a fair showing from what Serge calls the "wacko creativity" genre, including a line drawing of Abraham Lincoln that was executed without lifting the pen from the paper.

John Dailey, acting director of the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum in Buena Park, says it is our innate curiosity about "the odd and different and unusual" that draws tourists to an attraction such as Ripley's.

But Sarita Skidmore, a travel and tourism specialist with the Menlo Consulting Group in Los Altos, likens the appeal of the museums to the way car accidents draw rubbernecking.

Jim and Jeri Moat of Austin, Tex., wandered into the Believe It or Not museum after checking out the Hollywood Bowl. "I'm unimpressed," said Jim Moat, who paid $8.95 to get in. "There are better things in Texas."

Serge says that reaction is not typical. Surveys conducted by Ripley show that 95% of customers found the museum met or exceeded their expectations.

Believe It or Not museums draw more than 4 million visitors a year, and they are fueling expansion in both in North America and Asia.

In January, Ripley opened a Believe It or Not museum in Pattaya, Thailand, and later this month will be adding museums in Manila and Jakarta, Indonesia, Masterson said. The company is also working on deals to open attractions next year in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing and the Chinese province Guangzhou, along with sites in New York City and Atlantic City, N.J.

"In Asia now, all of a sudden there's a lot more disposable income," he said. "They're very fond of anything that's perceived to be American or Western entertainment. Asia doesn't account for nearly half our revenues yet, but within three years it will account for more than half."

Although museum-type attraction visitors account for a solid 80% of Ripley Entertainment's revenue, the company is trying to diversify.

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