Robert Ripley first began amazing the public with his collections of curiosities at the 1933 Chicago World Fair.
His ‘Odditorium’ attracted more than two million visitors and beds were famously made available for those who fainted, overcome by the surprising nature of the exhibits.
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, an American franchise founded by Ripley, has since been adapted for a wide variety of formats, including radio, television, comic books, a chain of museums and a book series.
Today, the Odditoriums are as popular as ever, with a new venue opening in Amsterdam’s Dam Square later this year.
Juan Carlos Zuloaga, CEO of this new Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium spoke to Blooloop about his passion for the brand and his ambitious plans for the new attraction.
Growing up with the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Brand
A world citizen, Zuloaga was born in Ecuador, and grew up in an international environment.
He studied at one of the German Humboldt schools in South America. When visiting Germany for the first time at the age of fifteen, he decided he wanted to study in Europe.
So at seventeen he went to university in Germany, and has, apart from a brief sojourn in the USA, remained there ever since.
He says he grew up with the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! brand.
“I remember watching the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Show every Sunday and being amazed at the things the people were doing.”
Having loved the concept as a child, and after one of his team members saw seeing a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! in Thailand, he resolved to open one in Amsterdam.
“Our group – our team – has several businesses all related to tourism in Amsterdam and in Europe. We wanted to bring something new to the city, something that actually would be a part of the community, of every family, something that would bring in new creativity and activity to the city.”
It has, admits Zuloaga, been a lengthy procedure. The attraction was originally slated to open in 2015, but this deadline proved optimistic. Mainly, he says, ‘because we have been very careful with our building, which is a protected monument in a great location – right in Dam Square.”
Dam Square is in the historical centre of Amsterdam, one of the most well-known and important locations in the city.
A museum with a difference
The new attraction will be a museum with a difference – an ‘odditorium’, as Ripley called it, full of curiosities.
The Ripley’s website gives a flavour of what to expect from an Odditorium in its ‘weirdest news’ section, with items ranging from ‘Man trains dog to dive for lobster’, ‘Man builds entire world map in his back yard’ and ‘Largest diamond found in over a century’ to ‘Aquarium performs successful stingray C-section’.
The brand’s remit covers curiosities of all kinds, from the scientific through the artistic to the frankly bizarre, touching on history and folklore along the way.
Robert Ripley was an American cartoonist, an entrepreneur with an amateur fascination with anthropology, and a pioneer in his field. He travelled the world assembling his unique collection, and coined the phrase “Believe it or Not!”, insisting he could substantiate every seemingly outrageous claim he made.
“People of my age and older were able to experience that through radio and the TV series, ” says Zuloaga.
He is keen to share that experience with a new generation, to “…bring the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! culture and excitement to the people in Holland; to the people in Europe; to every house.
“We have all this new technology. Everyone should be aware of the amazing world.”
Ripley’s legacy continues with Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment, Inc., a division of the Jim Pattison Group, a global company with an annual attendance of more than 14 million guests, which airs the TV shows, features publications of oddities, and has holdings in a variety of public attractions, including Ripley’s Aquarium, and the 32 Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museums, among others.
The Ripley’s collection, rotated throughout the 32 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums, comprises over 20, 000 photographs, 30, 000 artefacts and over 100, 000 cartoon panels.
Many Odditoriums are unusual in themselves. Several include arcades and theatres. In Orlando, Florida, the actual building housing the attraction defies belief as it appears to be sinking into the ground.
The Odditorium format
However, despite these quirks, all follow an essentially similar format.
“A Ripley’s Believe It or Not! normally has several galleries, ” says Zuloaga. “You normally have the fine art galleries, with paintings, mosaics, sculptures, several special products – for example, when you see it in London, you see all these arts made of flowers, taps, magnetics…”
Artwork is even made from bottle tops, sweets, lipstick kisses, plastic cutlery, butterflies, laundry lint, toast, computer keys, matchsticks and cow dung.
Other galleries house museum pieces – one of Henry VIII’s shoes is housed in the London collection.
Further exhibition spaces explore the notion of beauty as perceived by different cultures, through curiosities ranging from regional curios and tribal relics to shrunken heads, and move on to ‘Remarkable People’: from the very tall to the very small, and those who have used body modifications to transform their appearance.
Then there is ‘Incredible Nature’, celebrating everything from prehistoric shark teeth to two-headed farm animals.
“We’re also bringing in unique exhibitions: for example, we have one featuring full-sized wooden cars – including a Bugatti, ” says Zuloaga.
“And one of our main centrepieces is the robots: one of which is a 7m high robot made of auto parts. It’s amazing, actually.”
“We’ve just made a window display for the Christmas holidays where we had robots creating a new Christmas tree, and the Christmas tree was made of car parts, as well.”
There will also be a lot of oddities related to nature, and exhibits centring on remarkable people that work with animals.
An interactive experience
“We are also bringing in a lot of technology. We want to create this museum in as interactive a way as possible.”
Attracting visitors and ensuring they return is always a challenge for any attraction – even one as strategically located as this.
“I don’t believe in selling a product, ” he says. “I believe in sharing an experience. So what we are doing is creating a whole, complete experience around every single exhibit, a unique experience – something a visitor will always remember.
“Our goal is that our visitors will leave the building with a big smile, with the feeling that they have learned, that it was worth their time.”
The other goal, of course, is to build visitor numbers, thus ensuring the financial stability necessary to keep improving the quality of the experience.
The Ripley’s family
The exhibitions will change frequently, a key factor in keeping the experience fresh so visitors return, finding something new on each visit. A high percentage of the exhibition will rotate – one of the multiple benefits of belonging to what Zuloaga calls the “big family of Ripley’s”.
“There are 32 museums around the world; we can coordinate with everyone and create something amazing, sharing it to all the attractions as well.
“The tree that we have just made – that tree will pass all over the world.”
Ripley’s has been providing family entertainment for over 95 years and have a wealth of experience that Zuloaga and his team are tapping into. They are also obtaining advice from a number of well-known designers in Europe.
Their idea is to create a perfect synergy between American and European culture, so visitors experience the best of both worlds.
Rising to the challenge
There are challenges, of course:
“The first is the fact that that Ripley died in 1949. The challenge is to bring this amazing person, this Marco Polo, back to life for new generations.
“The second challenge, I would say, is that Amsterdam is a very international city. This is a concept that we have to share with many cultures in many languages.”
But, it seems that nothing can dampen Zuloaga’s enthusiasm.
“We love challenges. The more challenges we encounter, the more motivated we are to create an even better experience.”
Ripley’s may just be starting in Amsterdam, but Zuloaga’s goals for the future are clear: he envisages it being a part of every single event in the city:
“…and, where possible, every single event in the country. And, then the next level – why not – in Europe.
“We believe ourselves to be a family. We believe in innovation. We believe in creativity. We believe in the unbelievable.
“That’s what we want to push; that’s what we want to offer to our guests. We welcome everyone. We love everyone – so please – share our dream.”
Images kind courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.