Ripley's Believe It or Not! has finalized plans to open an "odditorium" museum at the Inner Harbor by June.
The attraction, which will feature more than 500 "oddities," a mirror maze and a 3-D movie theater, will take up two levels of the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace and include an attention-grabbing facade showing a sea serpent named Chessie wrapped around the entrance on the upper level.
Ripley's, an Orlando, Fla.-based entertainment company, toned down the appearance of the green, fanged sea monster from a proposal last fall that city officials considered too overpowering for the harbor.
Ripley's spokesman Tom O'Brien said he could not disclose anything about planned exhibits save that the centerpiece will be worth well over $1 million.
"This will be the most expensive item in any Ripley's worldwide," O'Brien said
Harborplace owner General Growth Properties, which announced the finalized lease with Ripley's on Tuesday, said the attraction will be part of a new lineup of tenants to open in time for the summer tourist season, boosting occupancy of both waterfront pavilions to 95 percent.
Other previously announced changes include the addition of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the first restaurant chain based on a movie; McCormick World of Flavors, a store showcasing the Baltimore-based spice maker's brand; a new food court with a Subway, Chicken Now and China Max; the return of Johnny Rockets restaurant; and a renovated, expanded J. Paul's restaurant.
For Harborplace, "this is probably the biggest change since the grand opening," more than three decades ago, said Christopher Schardt, senior general manager of Harborplace & The Gallery. "It's the most activity and the most new openings of retailers and restaurants at any one time."
The Ripley's attraction, which O'Brien said the company hopes to open the first week of June, will take up 12,500 square feet in the center of the pavilion, with a first-floor entrance on the harbor side and stairs and elevators leading to the bulk of the museum on the second floor. Construction has begun on a facade that will include a rowboat outside on the second level where visitors can pose for pictures with the sea monster.
The design of the facade has been dialed back from two previously proposals. The first showed a three-dimensional sea monster bursting from the building, with its body coiled around a three-masted ship and its teeth bared. The second version depicted the serpent wrapped around both the upper and lower levels of the pavilion's entrance.
The final version, with a smaller-scale Chessie, is still "a Ripley's attraction, but the city and Ripley's came to an agreement on what is acceptable," Schardt said.
The Baltimore "odditorium" will be the 32nd museum for Ripley's, which calls itself one of the oldest continuously operated brands in the United States and has similar attractions in 11 countries. Other facades include a shark protruding from a building on Ocean City's boardwalk, a building split in half in Branson, Mo., and a building being swallowed by a sinkhole in Orlando, Fla.
"We like to have a local vernacular feel to everything we do, and Chessie is very much that, very much a myth of the area," O'Brien said.
The company has been hoping to open a venue in Baltimore, particularly at the Inner Harbor, for years, he said.
"We see it as a very strong destination market," he said. "Our facility is certainly going to supplement the activities families can do in the area. We're excited about being part of Harborplace, especially Light Street pavilion with its new tenants."
Bubba Gump restaurant will move into a space that had been occupied by Phillips Seafood, which relocated to the Power Plant. The new food court, which eventually will have four eateries, will open in first-floor space formerly occupied by the Phillips buffet and include outside seating on Light Street. Johnny Rockets, which had closed a previous Light Street pavilion location, will reopen on the first floor facing the new food court.
The Pratt Street pavilion still has a few vacancies, Schardt said, but will get a new addition this summer when a gelato shop owned by the IT'SUGAR candy store opens.
He said the changes will help freshen the area's appeal for tourists as well as office workers and the growing number of downtown residents, Schardt said.
"We think it's providing a lot more opportunity for people to come back to the Inner Harbor … and give them a whole new outlook on the Inner Harbor and Harborplace," Schardt said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun