It’s been a long time since I entertained the notion of going to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. When I was a kid, I used to love them. But I also used to love Twinkies and Fun Dip.
I didn’t have very discerning taste, is what I’m trying to say.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but it seems like these places were a dime a dozen when I was younger. If you had asked 8-year-old me, a place wasn’t worth visiting if it didn’t have miniature golf, a wax museum, or either a Ripley’s museum or a Guinness Book of World Records museum.
As a kid, I ate these places up and couldn’t get enough of them. I loved ’em. But they weren’t very good. They were often thrown together for knucklehead kids like me who didn’t know any better. The museum was small, the exhibits were cheap, and you usually felt ripped off in the end.
It was therefore with some skepticism that we visited the brand-new Ripley’s Odditorium in Baltimore. I have to hand it to them, though, they know how to make themselves compelling. The museum has perfect placement right on the Inner Harbor, and that huge green dragon snaking its way around the entrance sure is eye-catching.
It caught the eye of my son, and that was all it took to bring me back inside a Ripley’s museum. And, believe it or not (sorry, had to do it at least once), this place is actually really great!
The exhibits have come a long way since those shoddy museums of my youth. Some of the gimmicks are the same, but the quality of nearly everything is surprisingly impressive. Those gimmicks, though? Yes, you can still pose next to 8’11” Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. Yes, there are still statues of some of the world’s fattest people. Yes, there are still coin-operated fortune-telling machines (straight out of Big).
The gimmicks will always be there. Heck, Ripley’s itself is a gimmick, so you kind of have to expect them. But the exhibits surrounding the gimmicks are by turns fascinating, substantive, and (yes) unbelievable.
My favorite part of the museum? This guy. A ginormous T-Rex made entirely of used Pop-Tarts wrappers. Yep. Fan-frickin’-tastic.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Past the turnstiles and up a set of musical stairs, you first encounter a room dedicated to Robert Ripley and his life’s work. There are artifacts from his world travels (presumably authentic, but some of the information panels are nebulously worded) and tons of information about his life.
Ripley traveled to over 200 countries in 20 years, which made him the most traveled man in the world from 1919–1940. Apparently, he was also quite the collector.
The remainder of the rooms (and there are many) are devoted to “unbelievable” artifacts from around the world, to various people’s “unbelievable” skills and abilities, or to wacky creations that live on the border between art and insanity (e.g., there are huge portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton made with hamburger grease).
Thankfully, nothing is presented in a vacuum. Everything is accompanied by an information panel that goes into surprising detail about the history and significance of each piece.
Whoever designed the Baltimore location must have a fetish for matchstick creations. There are a lot of them. They’re fantastically impressive, but there are a lot. There’s a huge cityscape with famous buildings from around the world…
The Baltimore location is also home to a Mirror Maze and a 4D theater. The mirror maze is actually quite good, and it took us a while to find our way out. The mirrors are all positioned so that endless hallways appear in every direction, and you can’t see your reflection until you’ve made a wrong turn and just smacked your face into a pane of glass.
It’s also very dark inside, so think twice if you have impressionable youngsters.
Sure, it’s gimmicky. Sure, it’s on the expensive side. But if you’ve got a couple of free hours and inquisitive kids, you can’t go wrong. This isn’t just a carnival sideshow. They make an admirable attempt to present history and authenticity alongside the weird.
Recommended for all ages!
Ripley’s Odditorium in Baltimore is located in the Light Street Pavilion on the Inner Harbor (301 Light St). There are a variety of ticket options that combine the three attractions (Odditorium, Mirror Maze, and 4D Theater). Check out the options and buy tickets here.