Modern-Day Museum Marvels | Other Orlando

  • Museums at one time were known as musty places with lifeless, dull and sometimes dusty displays of the ancient past. But no more. They’ve gotten more alive in recent times.

    Orlando’s own user-friendly version of modern-day museums is bizarre enough to warrant being called an “Odditorium.” The 10,000 square feet of exhibits at “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” museum are advertised as the only place in the world where visitors find shrunken heads and an authentic vampire killing kit, not to mention the “legendary” Fertility Statues, which 2,500 women believed helped make them pregnant (“Touch them for free, if you dare!” suggests Ripley).

    But you can take a quick, hour-and-a-half drive away to St. Augustine to find things that go bump in the night or even rattle your bones. Among them:

    ---The Pirate and Treasure Museum. As the oldest city in the US, this city used to be plundered by cutlass-swinging buccaneers who regularly sacked it. This tribute to that time is the result of the imagination of millionaire businessman Pat Croce who grew up fantasying about actor Errol Flynn in filmdom’s “Captain Blood.” The museum that opened in 2010 is easy to spot from the road since it flies not the Stars and Stripes but the “Jolly Roger.” Visitors find what may be the largest collection of pirate booty in the world with 800 artifacts including pearls, jewels, gold doubloons and even a real treasure chest. They are all relics dating back 400 years to the golden age of peg-legged pirates. Founder Croce says he likes pirates because they "practiced democracy" on board and were better employers than the merchant ships or navies of their day. But also just because they were real pirates. "You either surrendered or you died," he said of the luckless pirate victims, who are dramatized by a twitching corpse in an Execution Dock.

    ---A more modern-day version of the bizarre is offered at Wolf’s Museum of Mystery, put together by Wolfgang Von Mertz who as a kid idolized Elvis Presley and was very aware of legendary ax murderer Lizzie Borden. Both are on view in a Victorian St. Augustine home that also has as its oldest item a collage of risque Marilyn Monroe postcards. Oh, and don’t forget notorious murderer John Wayne Gacy. Visitors know what to expect when they see the front door of the museum, which lists "Exorcist Bathroom" and "Chef Agony's Slaughterhouse Kitchen"" among its attractions Among the most popular exhibits is Lizzie Borden’s “Bloody Boudoir, which displays framed photos of Lizzie's parents' battered skulls above a circular bed owned by a brothel madam; a Bigfoot room; galleries devoted to circus sideshows and voodoo; and a tribute to The Big Lebowski, one of Wolf's favorite films. Owner Wolf is a real practicing attorney who has represented famous clients. He advertises that everything in the museum -- and it includes a stillborn elephant, an Alligator Girl Monster and a human brain in resin -- is for sale. It’s known as a “full retail museum.” By making everything available for sale, the policy also serves as a way to add future funds for collecting. Visitors can expect even more eccentric items in the future.

    ---For a real “heads on” display, visitors can take in Potter’s Wax Museum. It was named after George Potter, well-known in the area during the start of the 20th century as a collector of the strange and unusual. Potter was clearly influenced by London’s Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. The local version became known as the second largest wax museum in the world. Herman Munster, George Washington, and Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn are the dummies that first greet visitors, conveying the smorgasbord of celebrity and historical figures found here. There’s also Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler (the later figure was hidden for years because it used to regularly be attacked by visitors) to represent the bad guys. In the "Famous Authors" exhibit, Mark Twain is bookended by the disembodied heads of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. A lengthy showcase of famous heads suggests the resources at Potter's disposal: Sandra Bullock, Moses, the cast of Seinfeld, a two-faced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a head simply labeled "Burnt Guy - Horror Victim." There’s also Princess Di, the comic book Phantom Menace, former president Bill Clinton and actor-turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. You never know who you will encounter here.