Greg and Carol Robinson spent only two days in Orlando, but they made sure to visit the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum on International Drive.
The South African couple had grown up reading Ripley's comic strips in the newspaper and on bubble-gum wrappers. And their recent trip through Ripley's Orlando "odditorium" -- with a collection that includes a petrified man, the world's largest tire and an obligatory shrunken head -- did nothing to change their image of Ripley's as a purveyor of all things strange.
Still, the Robinsons said they would consider visiting a Ripley's hotel or aquarium -- even if there was nothing weird about it.
"It's not something you'd expect, but it's also not something I would necessarily avoid, either," Greg Robinson said.
That's good news for Bob Masterson, president of Ripley Entertainment Inc., the Orlando-based company that owns 27 odditoriums worldwide and licenses its name and archives to the long-running Ripley's Believe It or Not! television show.
Masterson has spent more than a decade trying to extend Ripley's image. On his watch, the company has broadened its holdings to include aquariums, a mini-golf course, wax museums, haunted mansions and "interactive" movie theaters. It even franchises six Guiness World Records Experience museums.
Three months ago, Ripley snapped up the popular Big Red Train tour-bus company in St. Augustine. Just a month before that, it had announced its most ambitious project yet: a $200 million resort in Niagara Falls, Ontario, that will include a 404-room hotel, an indoor water park and a nearby aquarium.
"We're Ripley's Entertainment and one of the things we own is Believe It or Not!" Masterson said. "We've worked very hard over the last 10 years to shift the perception of our products."
Brand helps, hurts
The privately held company doesn't release financial data, but Masterson said the acquisitions have helped Ripley double its revenue in the past three years -- and he expects it to double again in the next three years.
Still, Masterson admits the company continues to face an uphill battle in extending its image.
"It's our No. 1 obstacle," he said.
After all, Ripley's has been peddling oddball information and images for more than 80 years, ever since Robert Ripley published his first Believe It or Not! cartoon in 1919. (The comic strip still appears in about 200 newspapers in 42 countries.)
"The Ripley's name as a brand has an incredible amount of recognition attached to it," said James Zoltak, editor of Amusement Business magazine. "If you are redefining yourself, you face a challenge of getting people to think of more than an odditorium."
It remains to be seen whether hotels and conventional attractions with the Ripley's name will be accepted by the public, Zoltak said.
"Using the brand in a different way could be a help or a hindrance to Ripley's," he said. "It will definitely be a balancing act."
Ripley's expansion began shortly after the company was acquired in 1985 by the Jim Pattison Group, a privately held conglomerate based in Vancouver, British Columbia. As Canada's third-largest private company, the Pattison Group's varied holdings include radio stations, sign companies, car dealerships and food retailers.
Billionaire Jim Pattison, who built the company starting with a single Pontiac-Buick dealership in 1961, requires all of the company's divisions to boost their revenue by 15 percent a year.
At first, Ripley's was content to grow by building more odditoriums. (Robert Ripley coined the term "odditorium" for his first public display of weird artifacts at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.) But the company soon realized that a new and more aggressive strategy was needed if it was to continue hitting the parent corporation's financial targets.