The legacy of wonder that Robert Ripley unleashed on the world almost a century ago when he shared his collection of strange, shocking artefacts and stories through his first ‘Odditorium’, continues to awe to this day. As a collector of curiosities from around the world, his collection was first displayed for public viewing in 1933 in the US at the Chicago World’s Fair – the precursor to the modern World Expo – and featured body oddities, dozens of Ripley’s famous cartoons, bizarre objects, and live performers showcasing seemingly impossible feats.
Now, some of these weird and most wonderful attractions have come to Dubai and are housed at the 31st Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium at Global Village, a destination that welcomed more than seven million visitors in its last season. Part theme-park, part market, Global Village is famed for celebrating the world’s diverse cultures and traditions, which makes it a perfect fit to host the first ever Ripley’s venue in the Middle East.
So what unusual and fascinating exhibits can we expect to find here? ‘Everything from a remarkable collection of natural, scientific, artistic and human oddities,’ says our guide as she leads us inside the misshapen structure of treasure chests and genie lamps topped with a hot air balloon – it looks set for take-off any minute!
Several guides are on hand to help visitors in each of the six unique galleries where a diverse collection of one-of-a-kind attractions and hands-on interactive experiences sourced from around the world are displayed. ‘From authentic shrunken heads and skulls, a host of exotic primitive items and a large iron Gibeon meteorite to a behemoth Megalodon shark jaw and mind-boggling visual illusions, the Dubai Odditorium houses one of the most astounding collections ever,’ says our guide as we head inside. ‘These are both entertaining and educational, and perfect for all ages.’
Our journey begins with the ‘Tribal Jungle’ gallery, which displays personal artefacts depicting world cultures as well as primitive objects belonging to Robert Ripley. What instantly catches our attention is a traditional Balinese Barong dance costume covered in thick fur, adorned with jewellery and mirrors. This dance involves two people in synchronised movements to portray Barong, the king of spirits.
We admire the painstaking efforts behind the creation of a Chinese pagoda made entirely of matchsticks. The skeleton of a Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard found in the south Pacific, occupies pride of place here. ‘Did you know that these fierce reptiles can eat the equivalent of 80 per cent of their body weight in one sitting?’ asks our guide. That equals a 200-pound man eating 640 hamburgers at one meal.
‘And believe it or not, they have been known to dig up and devour human corpses and they even eat their young!’ she adds.
In contrast to these gargantuan lizards are the tiny fighting crickets that the Chinese keep as pets. We see how these little champions – fed a high-protein diet prior to the fight – were highly pampered; and transported in elaborate cages made of gourds or bones with ivory lids.
Our next exhibit makes us wonder: to what lengths would you go to protect your hairdo? Ethiopia’s wooden head rest that elevates the head from the ground provides a clue as to how traditional women protected elaborate hairstyles from getting messed up during the night!
A creepy exhibit not to be missed here is an original shrunken head (1400 CE) from Ecuador where members of the Shuar tribe claimed enemy heads as war trophies and after removing the skull and stitching up the eyes and mouth, would place hot stones and sand into the vacant cavity and boil it in a mixture of herbs. The ‘miniaturised’ head, two-thirds of the original, was then cured over an open fire to give it a distinctly leather texture!!
No Ripley’s Odditorium can be complete without a menagerie of animal oddities, and the museum at Global Village is no exception. Whoever believes two heads are better than one should have a peek at the two-headed animals that are the stars of the show here. ‘Robert Ripley relished collecting what he called “pranks of nature”,’ says our guide as we look in fascination at the skeleton of a two-headed calf and the X-ray of a two-headed rat snake.
‘Once considered an omen of disaster, most animals born with two heads or multiple limbs generally die at birth,’ she says. ‘A few occasionally live a “normal” life for several months.’
Amongst the other strange animals in this section are a five-legged frog and a six-legged deer.
We are greeted at the gallery of Human Oddities by a young guide who leads us into a unique world of the most peculiar and shockingly different physical attributes of humans. ‘Some of these are so startling that you will begin to question whether they really existed,’ he says. ‘But, of course, at Ripley’s, truth is always stranger than fiction!’
His words ring true as we ‘meet’ Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Romanian prince, on whom the story of Dracula is said to be based. We learn that although Vlad Tepes was not a ‘vampire’, he did thirst for blood! There are shrieks of gasps as our guide explains that he is believed to have killed over 100,000 people in his short lifetime – burning to death all the beggars in his kingdom at a single dinner party, and impaling more than 20,000 men, women and children in 1462 alone!
We are intrigued by the tale of a Danish astronomer who lost his nose in a sword fight, replacing it with a glued-on one made from solid gold!
We are saddened, however, to learn of the tragically short life of the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow. Through videos, life-size wax models that tower over us, and original items such as a size 37AA shoe that he wore or the last suit ever made for him (with nine yards of cloth), we hear how he was an average size at birth. His exceptionally fast growth began following a double hernia surgery at the age of two. The special braces that he wore, to walk properly and stand upright, caused a blister on his ankle that turned infectious, leading to the untimely death of this “gentle giant” at age 22 in 1940. He weighed over 440 pounds and was 8ft 11 inches tall when measured just a few days prior. At the other extreme is Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, who stood tall at 3ft 4 inches and was so popular he was received at the courts of the Queens of England, France, Spain and Belgium.
Ripley’s wonderful world of crazy and strange human abnormalities leads us to the Sicilian who was born with three legs; another who trained his pet snake to slither into his nose and out his mouth; a Chinese who had a blue face and white hair caused by a medical condition; a Niger woman with padlocks in her nose; and the bizarre Chinese tour guide who once guided American dignitaries through the streets by the light of a candle in his head! ‘His scalp had been cut through and had an opening to hold the inserted candle that was then held in place by melted wax,’ explains our guide.
Leading us on next to Walter Hudson’s wax figure, we are shell-shocked to discover that the world’s heaviest man in 1987 weighed nearly 1,400 pounds, and his average daily diet – among a host of other things – also consisted of two boxes of sausages; a pound of bacon; 12 eggs; 4 Big Macs; 4 cheeseburgers; 8 large fries; 3 ham steaks or 2 chickens; and 6 quarts of soda with each meal!
A walk through Ripley Warehouse introduces us to more oddities. ‘This is where you will encounter creatures from a pre-historic era, see how recycling has been taken to a whole new level and enjoy the spectacle of a series of unusual objects assembled from all over the world,’ says our guide.
Dinosaur lovers have plenty to gape at here, from fossilised dino dung formed 125 million years ago to the casting of a T-Rex skull and a T-Rex footprint measuring 33 inches long by 21 inches wide.
Other prehistoric exhibits include the tooth of a Woolly Mammoth, and when we come to the open jaws of a Megaladon Shark, our guide dares us to walk right up and put our heads in its mouth! ‘The prehistoric Megalodon is a relative of today’s Great White shark. It could grow to a length of 59 feet and had over 250 teeth, each up to seven inches in length – large enough to bite a small car,’ he explains.
While the scrap metal Tower Bridge represents the pinnacle of recycling with 3,246 pieces of metal picked up on the streets of London by road sweepers in 1896, the series of animal sculptures made from recycled car tyres, scrap metal and hardware is equally astonishing. Watch out for a spiderweb painting created using new and abandoned spiderwebs in Florida, US.
Robert Ripley’s sojourns in the Arab world and the curios he acquired during his travel including a Mesopotamian Clay Tablet and a Persian powder flask, are found in the ‘American and Arabian’ gallery. The centrepiece, however, is a beautiful ‘toothpick’ creation of a palatial Vietnamese mansion. ‘The structure contains more than 250,000 bamboo splinters and over 750,000 drilled holes, and took seven months to complete,’ says our guide. ‘What is impressive about this piece is that no glue has been used to hold it together.’
Four exquisite wedding gowns, each made entirely with toilet paper, tissue, cupcake liners and coffee filters, attest to creative workmanship.
This gallery has its fair share of pop culture icons too, like a rose petal painting of Megan Fox and a Super Bowl cushion signed by none other than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
At the Magical Studio, we lose ourselves in mind-boggling visual illusions, and an extensive collection of games and brain teasers. We wonder how our shadows appear in multi-coloured hues on the wall and have a hearty laugh at our shortened and stretched-out figures in a distortion mirror that our guide says is ‘one of Ripley’s all-time favourite optical illusions.’
We walk through a mystifying, dark, spinning Vortex Tunnel lit up in psychedelic colours and try hard to balance ourselves by gripping the rails as the floor seems to twist and turn with every step we take.
We safely ‘land’ at the Wow Space Gallery, where the first traditional Emirati clothing to make it to space is prominently displayed. Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansoori’s kandora and ghutra worn during his mission onboard the International Space Station (ISS) in September last year are featured here, along with a few Emirati dishes specially prepared for him.
The main attractions here are the Gibeon Meteorite, a very large iron mass that exploded over Africa’s Kalahari Desert in a pre-historic era; and the Zagami meteorite, a nine-million-year-old piece of the planet Mars!
Just when we thought we had come to the end of a delightfully surreal experience, our guide ushers us into the Marvellous Mirror Maze, one of only 11 in the world. We soon realise that finding our way out of this labyrinthine maze of over 100 mirrors, set up with LED lights and digital sound that create fantastic illusions, is easier said than done. We pass a group of boisterous youngsters erupting into laughter each time they hit a dead end, and a young mother with a toddler, looking completely baffled and lost.
Thankfully, we find the exit before the search parties make their half-hour visits to rescue the lost ones!
In the span of less than two hours, we had witnessed the macabre, enjoyed the weird, and experienced some absolutely freaky, shocking, bizarre phenomena from around the world. And Believe It or Not! there never was a dull moment in here!
Know Before You Go
Entry to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium is priced at Dh40. Entry to the Amazing Mirror Maze is Dh25. A Combo Ticket can be purchased for Dh50.
Global Village timings:
Saturday to Wednesday: 4pm until midnight
Thursdays, Fridays and public holidays: 4pm until 1am
Global Village is open until April 4, 2020.
Step aboard the lovely boats at the Floating Market (located next to the restaurants’ area), featuring rustic gastronomical fare from the Far East. Savour the delights of Thailand’s spicy grilled seafood with octopus, mussels and shrimp dunked in traditional Thai sauce, explore an exotic range of creamy, coconut-laced dishes, or some insanely delicious sweet and savoury mango dishes.
Look out for authentic versions of Korean Bibimbap and hot steaming Ramen, perfect for the weather. Enjoy deep fried noodles, hearty soup bowls and nasi goreng from Indonesia, seated on low tables, or stewed meat dishes from Philippines.