Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum - Gatlinburg

A two-headed calf... a fake mermaid created by splicing a fish tail on a monkey torso... a genuine shrunken head... a four-legged bird... a two-headed calf... a photo of a three-legged man... These are a few of the peculiarities visitors will encounter at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I grew up a couple of decades past the heyday of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoons, but I’ve always enjoyed Ripley’s cartoons of the weird. The short, nerdy, buck-toothed Robert Ripley was a fascinating individual. Throughout the early 1900's, he traversed the globe in search of the fantastic, bizarre and unbelievable. He was an explorer, cartoonist, reporter and collector, and he was good at all of them. He was unassuming, somewhat shy, open-minded and extremely observant. Often times he would adopt some of the customs of the exotic lands he visited. He ultimately amassed a collection of over 8000 weird and exotic items... each with its own unique and unusual story. His experiences and artifacts were described via his famous personally-drawn cartoons, radio and TV. Ripley loved what he did, and he also had a knack for translating his experiences for the American pop-culture audience.

Ripley first opened his first "Odditorium" at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and attracted over 2 million visitors. Today, over 25 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museums are scattered throughout the world. True to the Ripley spirit, most of the museums feature extremely unusual architecture. The Gatlinburg museum resembles a three-story Romanesque revival building crumbling apart during a severe earthquake. The brick exterior has several huge faux-cracks a few feet wide from top to bottom. Some of the "chunks" of the building are horizontally offset by the cracks, making the illusion especially effective. The tower on the building’s corner is offset by a "crack" and is leaning at about a 15-degree angle, presenting the appearance that the tower is in the midst of toppling off.

All of Gatlinburg’s tourist attractions are located on (or very near) one main drag... the Parkway (US 441), so locations are expressed in the terms of traffic lights. The museum is located at 800 Parkway, Traffic Light #7, right on the corner. This is roughly in the middle of town. Just outside the museum’s entrance, visitors are lured by a 5-ton solid granite ball floating and spinning on 1/264 of an inch of pressurized water. Visitors may put their hands on the 4-foot diameter ball and spin it in another direction. Upon entering the museum and paying the admission, visitors enter a noisy atrium filled with an eclectic mix of exhibits such as a mastodon skeleton, the world’s longest chain of gum wrappers and a moving, speaking holographic image of Ripley. The museum has many chambers, some of which are rather dark. There are many stairs and narrow passageways, giving the museum a slightly claustrophobic feel.

Aside from those already mentioned, the exhibits include:

* A two-headed goat.

* Wax busts of two men, one with a 7-inch ling nose, the other with a 12-inch horn on the top of his head.

* A sample of hair from a Himalayan yeti (a.k.a. abominable snowman).

* A short black and white film of men performing strange stunts. One guy hammered 6 inch nails up his nose. Another swallowed (and barfed up) light bulbs. Yet another swallowed 3-foot long swords.

* Many photographs of Ripley’s oddities.

* Many scaled-up versions of Ripley’s cartoons.

* A laser harp with invisible strings.

* Optical illusions

2004 prices are $12.95 (plus tax) for adults and kids 12 and over, $7.95 for kids 6 - 11, and $11.95 for seniors. Kids 5 and under are free. Allow hour to peruse the entire museum... maybe longer if you examine all of the details.





Ripley's Haunted Adventure - Gatlinburg

Those who hit the Haunted House circuit each Halloween will not want to miss Ripley’s Haunted Adventure. It is truly scary. It’s scary because it’s dark... It’s scary because it’s startling and confusing... and it’s scary because of the disturbing images confronting visitors.

Appropriately, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure is located in a building formerly occupied by a casket manufacturer. The adventure begins with a short trip up a caged escalator to the second floor. Visitors are then greeted by a grim pseudo-vampire "host" who will explain the rules and attempt to instill a sense of terror and uncertainty. Once a group of 10-15 is assembled, they are instructed to hold hands and enter the dark chambered labyrinth.

At times, the passages are completely dark and very narrow. I won't give away too many details, but I’ll list a couple of examples of the images for the sake of illustration. Early in the adventure, visitors are witness to an exaggerated portrayal of a strait-jacket clad mental patient being administered electric shock treatment... reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." It is clearly a lifelike dummy, but it’s frightening and disturbing nonetheless.

Example #2 is less disturbing, but some may find it disgusting... although I found it very humorous. Visitors proceed through a blacklight-illuminated passageway containing a number of small neon-colored dioramas. This chamber has many active components and could instill nausea for that reason. The one image which still resonates with me is that of a 3-foot tall troll. Every 15 seconds or so, the troll would bend over and eject a great amount of neon-green vomit. The scene was augmented by a delightfully disgusting gurgling/retching sound effect. Some may be repulsed, but I was amused by the unconventional imagination and tolerant technical know-how required to create such a scene.

Although these examples illustrate the level of fright and horror that Ripley’s Haunted Adventure attempts to achieve, they definitely don’t give away the entire experience. There’s some blood, some guts and some whimsy. Visitors will be encountered with a few surprises that may be considered startling, funny, or just plain annoying, but nothing you are carrying will be harmed, nor will you have any ill-effects after you’ve left (aside from the impact of the disturbing images).

A few actors are involved and they do an adequate job. Except for the "host" we didn’t get a clear view of the other actors’ faces, but it’s likely that most are college students earning some summer scratch. Our young grim-reaper-like "host" successfully thwarted the youngsters’ attempts to get him to smile. It’s worth noting that we visited Gatlinburg at the end of August, near the end of the tourist season... so the actors who had probably been doing the same gig all summer still maintained a spirited performance.

To fully enjoy Gatlinburg, one must be willing and able to walk. Ripley’s Haunted Adventure is located on Gatlinburg’s main (and only) drag, The Parkway. Gatlinburg itself is 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag... so parking is at a premium. There is no free parking for this attraction and very little parking nearby. Even when parking is found, a considerable amount of walking is necessary. We paid 6 bucks to park all day on the western end of Gatlinburg and it’s about a 45-minute walk all the way across town.

Admission to Ripley’s Haunted Adventure for kids ages 6-11 is $7.95 (2004). Adults and anyone over 11 are $11.95. That’s at least 40 or 50 bucks or more for most families. Kids under 6 are not permitted. Until recently, they didn’t admit kids under 8. Although I can’t remember exactly... after waiting in line... the entire adventure lasts 15-20 minutes... 30 minutes tops.

This review is has been written entirely from memory as photography at Ripley’s Haunted Adventure is not permitted. It’s just as well. The darkness and spontaneity would make photography difficult and a photographer or two in the group would likely slow things down for everyone.

I liked it and my 10 and 12 year old daughters liked it. They occasionally gasped and screamed, but suffered no ill-effects. We also had quite a few laughs. (I was the only one who laughed out loud at the snarfing troll.) Ripley’s Haunted Adventure will definitely be a hit with haunted house fans, but it’s not for the timid or those who are easily disturbed. Although it’s not as "over-the-top" or gruesome as it could be... it goes waaaay beyond cartoon ghosts and witches.










Ripley’s Moving 3-D Theater

Ripley’s Moving 3-D Theater is just as its name implies. 3-D glasses are issued at the ticket booth. They’re the polarized kind, not the old fashioned red/blue ones, so the colors in the movies are not altered. The theater holds maybe 50 or 60 people. Visitors are strapped snugly in their padded high-back chairs. When the movie begins, the chairs and the platform begin to move... corresponding to the motions depicted on the screen. There are 2 movies shown... about 10 minutes apiece. The first movie we saw put the viewers in the front seat of a fantasy cartoon roller coaster. We encountered foreign objects on the track (like a huge ball a la "Indiana Jones") and moments when the coaster appeared to leave the track. The motion is often quite intense and jerky. With the huge screen, 3-D effect, moving chairs and great sound system... the effect is quite profound. I’d love to tell you more details of the movies... but alas, I can’t. You see, gentle readers... I have learned that I am prone to motion sickness. Soon after the ride/movie began, I became queasy... then extremely nauseous. I removed my 3-D glasses and averted my eyes from the screen. It took some effort, but I focused my eyes on a stationary point on the wall to my left. This was to little avail and I began to hyperventilate. My face and lips became numb, I was sweating profusely and the nausea became even more intense. By this time, my kids (10 and 12 year old girls) had noticed my behavior and expression of agony and became concerned. Not wanting to ruin their experience, I told them I was OK (they knew better) and I sat through the entire experience. Fortunately, I had not recently eaten... or things could have become REALLY ugly for everyone in the theater. After it was over, it took considerable effort to unstrap myself from the chair. My limbs were heavy, my entire face was numb and I could not speak. It took all of my energy to stagger up the stairs and stumble into the lobby. As I looked around, none of the other movie-goers seemed to be suffering from similar ill-effects, but some were taken aback by my skin’s unusual greenish hue. We made our way back out onto the street to find a place me to sit. Although it was hot and humid, I was surprised that it took only 5-10 minutes to completely recover from my debilitating condition. Well... motion sickness notwithstanding... this is a unique and intense experience. I would recommend it to those who can hack it. Just remember to pack some Dramamine. Ripley’s Moving 3-D Theater is located on the Parkway near Traffic Light #8. I believe admission is about $7, but I don’t remember exactly.

Since we had visited the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans just a few days earlier, we did not go to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. It is the only attraction in Gatlinburg with AAA’s "gem" designation, and is arguable the town’s centerpiece, so it deserves a mention. The modern-looking building is situated on a big chunk of beautifully-landscaped land at Traffic Light #5. According to the AAA 2003 Tour Book, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a 100,000 square foot facility featuring six galleries, a tropical rain forest exhibit, coral reef, "Stingray Bay", thousands of tropical fish, a giant octopus, giant crabs and an acrylic shark tunnel. Admission (2004) is $17.95 for adults and kids 12 and over, kids 6-11 are $9.95, kids 2-5 are $3.95 and babies are free.