With 70-plus attractions, including aquariums, wax museums and the world famous Believe-it-or-not Museums, or “Odditoriums, Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment, Inc., a division of the Jim Pattison Group, has an annual attendance of over 12 million guests. Tim O’Brien (below right), Ripley’s VP Communications with Ripley Entertainment Inc., has a strong background in media and in the attractions and theme park business, Chad Emerson caught up with him.
You’ve had a very interesting career in the amusement industry. How did it get started and what are you doing now?
I officially started my career in the amusement industry at Amusement Business magazine in 1985 as senior parks editor. I left on Jan. 1, 2004 when I saw the handwriting on the wall that the publication was in such decline that it had no chance of survival. However, I was into theme parks and roller coasters long before 1985. Growing up in Ohio, one was conditioned to great parks from birth. My masters thesis from the Ohio State University in Film Production was a half-hour documentary on Cedar Point. I was a photographer at the Ohio State Fair for three years in the late 1960s, so I have always had it in my blood.
I am now the VP Communications with Ripley Entertainment Inc. I am responsible for the promotion and PR of the company’s 70-plus attractions and businesses around the world. I act as corporate spokesperson and do a lot of radio and TV work, as well as writing and creative planning.
What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve faced since joining Ripley’s?
O’Brien: I like to kiddingly say that in 2004 I crossed over into the dark side – the world of PR! From journalist to PR person was a natural transition for me, especially since I stayed in somewhat the same industry. The journalists who used to call me for quotes about the industry when I was working with AB, and who became friends over the years, are now my major conduits in getting the Ripley news out.
I think our biggest challenge at Ripley’s is to keep our brand in the forefront and to make sure it stands for quality. Within the Ripley umbrella, we have 11 different brands, all different than the others. So on one hand I talk about our Believe It or Not! museums and our shrunken heads and six-headed cows, while on the other I speak of our Great Wolf Lodge 406-room indoor waterpark resort in Niagara Falls, and our two highly successful and AZA accredited aquariums. There’s quite a gap between those sectors and sometimes credibility issues creep up. But with the longevity and the reputation that all the brands within the Ripley family enjoy, it’s not a hard issue to overcome.
Can you give some more detail on Ripley’s broad and unique set of amusement venues, and the core mission and culture that tie them all together?
In general, outside of the Great Wolf Lodge, our mission is to offer half-day or less entertainment options to families at an affordable rate. It’s that simple. We are in the entertainment business and we sell tickets to families who want to have a fun, quality experience. We point out that we fit the family budget, not only in cost but in time commitment as well. A lot of people, even if they have a lot of money, don’t have the time to commit to a long time-consuming (ala major theme parks) visit. In a nutshell, we have our Believe It or Not! museums, Haunted Adventures, Moving Theaters, miniature golf, mirror mazes, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museums, Sightseeing Trains (St. Augustine), Super Fun Zone arcades, two aquariums, The Great Wolf Lodge, Aveda Spa, and Guinness World Record Museums. We also sell more than a million books a year, license our brand to retailers and are currently working on a new TV series. There’s a film starring Jim Carrey as Robert Ripley in the works. Our parent company also owns the Guinness Book of World Records.
With such a great creative reputation and scope of experience, why has Ripley’s not become more involved in developing its own theme park experience?
It has been looked at many times and as you can imagine, we are approached constantly to either buy or to take over management of a park. But large parks with large rides is not the business model we feel comfortable with. We are very successful in our niche.
What are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had since working in the amusement industry?
WOW, that list could go on for pages. From a business perspective, which I worked within for 18 years, I think the sincerity and dedication of owners and top managers who work in the industry is awesome. Good owners and good managers live the life and that’s what makes them good. They take pride in what they do and they are excited to put smiles on customers’ faces. I’m not only talking about family parks here, but large corporations that run parks can have the same attitude and dedication if the right person is at the top.
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Images kind courtesy Ripleys.com