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Secrets of Ripley’s Believe It or Not in New York City

Category Attractions

|by Jessica Colley Clarke |

From albino giraffes at midnight to the chance to showcase your own strange artifacts at the museum, what you don't know about Ripley’s Believe It or Not may surprise you

Times Square is known for its oddball characters, a reputation that is clearly upheld at this often-thronged attraction: Ripley’s Believe It or Not. This “Odditorium” is home to rare curiosities, wacky stories and outlandish relics from around the globe — witness eerie shrunken human heads, photos of legless acrobats flying through the air, and a portrait of Lady Gaga made entirely of crayons. New York is filled with high culture, but when you’re in the mood for eye-popping silly fun, this is the spot. But there’s more — a lot more — to the museum than its exhibits: Ripley’s hides plenty of stories and secrets of its own. We went behind the scenes to unearth the fascinating history of Ripley’s and what we found will surprise you — believe it or not!

Ripley’s Time Square at night (Photo: Courtesy of Ripley’s)

Ripley’s Time Square at night (Photo: Courtesy of Ripley’s)

The museum owes its existence to one intriguing man: Robert Ripley
Did you know there actually was a man named Ripley? Robert Ripley, and his obsession with all things curious and odd, laid the foundation for what would become this worldwide attraction. Early in his career, Ripley was best known for his cartoon art, where he first explored his love of the strange, tracking down stories from around the globe, from extreme sports feats to bizarrely shaped vegetables. In fact, Ripley’s cartoons were such a success that he became known as one of the world’s first cartoonist millionaires. Ripley’s continued fascination with the concept of “truth is stranger than fiction” led him to travel the world for most of his life, lugging home fascinating objects and artifacts, which he displayed in his eponymous museums. The phrase “Believe It or Not” was coined by Robert Ripley.

The seeds of Ripley’s Believe It or Not started at the 1933 World’s Fair
Long before the doors of Ripley’s Believe It or Not first opened, there was the exhibition that started it all: the Ripley’s Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. This exhibit of curiosities and live performances, which attracted more than two million people during the course of the fair, included sword-swallowers, and contortionists, along with eye-catching pieces from around the world, from teeth-baring masks to intricate carvings. In a time when Americans didn’t have the opportunity to travel as far and wide as Ripley, this collection served as a fascinating introduction to cultures and life beyond our borders.

Play ball: Baseball is a star at Ripley’s
When you see all the baseball paraphernalia at Ripley’s, you may wonder where it fits in. America’s oldest pastime was one of Robert Ripley’s obsessions. Born in California, Ripley played semi-pro baseball and was a lifelong fan. The Times Square museum has an exhibit dedicated to bizarre baseball memorabilia, including the stockings Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding night to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and a vintage Babe Ruth uniform from a Ripley’s-sponsored charity game with “Believe it or Not” on the front of the jersey.

This is not the first “Odditorium” in Times Square
Perhaps nothing about Times Square should be surprising — but it’s interesting to note that Ripley’s Believe it or Not is not the first Odditorium in the neighborhood. In 1957, circus impresario John Arthur opened an Odditorium, but the changing nature of the area (it developed into a seedy, brothel-strewn neighborhood in the 1970s) caused this landmark to close.

Ripley’s museums have popped up around the globe — but Times Square is one of the newest and largest
Robert Ripley has inspired museums across the globe. From Australia to Korea, Thailand to England, Hong Kong to Orlando, there are now 30 locations of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The Times Square location is actually one of the museum’s newer openings. It opened in 2007 and, at 18,000 square feet, is the second-biggest one in the company’s history, after the London branch.

Yes, truth is stranger — much stranger! — than fiction
Beyond the history, it’s the exhibits that are the stars of the show, starting with the numbers: The museum houses an impressive 500 artifacts, spread out over 20 galleries. The collection is firmly rooted in Ripley’s belief that truth is stranger than fiction. To that end, you’ll see a weird and wonderful side to all aspects of life, including the animal kingdom, from albino giraffes to six-legged cows to two-headed calves. This is also where history comes to life — sort of. Look for locks of hair from JFK, Elvis, and Napoleon, all of which have been DNA-tested and verified.

Lady Gaga made entirely of crayons
But Ripley’s isn’t just about old finds; the museum also regularly unveils modern exhibits. Check out the giant, colorful portrait of Lady Gaga made entirely from crayons, a World Trade Center Memorial created out of 470,000 matchsticks, and a life-size Captain America constructed from used car parts.

Own something strange? Ripley’s may want to buy it
Have something you think belongs in an Odditorium? The museum is always on the hunt for new curious objects, and hosts an official Buying Bazaar right in Times Square, usually once a year (check the website for upcoming dates). People from across the country bring their one-of-a-kind items to the heart of New York City to be evaluated by a knowledgeable member of the Ripley’s staff. Objects that have been collecting dust in an attic for decades might be worth something substantial if you get them in the right hands.

This Odditorium is not just for daytime fun — it’s open until 1am
It’s not just New York that never sleeps; the same can be said about Ripley’s. Many visitors might assume that the museum is only open during daytime hours, but a place with this many curiosities takes on a different feel after dark. The museum is open 365 days a year — and until 1am (winter hours can be slightly shorter), with the last entry at midnight. This means you can go to a show on Broadway, grab dinner afterwards, and still check out Ripley’s before the doors shut for the night.

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