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Not-So-Tacky Tourist Attractions In America's Oldest City

Posted on:  May 21st, 2011  by  Ramona |  1 Comment

While St. Augustine is certainly well known for its legitimate history, it also boasts a pretty strong affinity for tacky tourist attractions — the kinds filled with shrunken heads and animatronic talking heads, wax mannequins and cheesy artistic reproductions. These sorts of diversions may seem at first to have no redeeming value, but is that really the case?

Potter's Wax Museum

I should probably admit right now that I have a weakness for crappy old-school attractions — the ones with grade-school quality artwork, dusty dioramas, animatronic characters that are missing body parts, and pieces of scenery falling off the walls. So the window display at Potter's Wax Museum caught my eye the first time Matt and I walked through Old Town and down toward the river — a cadaverous-looking gathering of the four main “Seinfeld” cast members, each looking sickly and yellow and jaundiced. It was so bad, I insisted that we immediately go inside for more — and I found the place enchanting! It all started when George Potter became enamored of Madame Tussaud's work, apprenticed as a designer for her museum in London, and decided that the U.S. should have something comparable. He flew many of his “people” over from Europe as passengers on commercial flights (how fun would that have been to sit next to Louis XVI or William The Conqueror or Sacajawea?) — opening the first wax gallery in the country in 1948. George died in the 80's, but his manager now continues on in the same tradition. And even today, this place is everything that an old-school amusement should be — a little forlorn, a tad overpriced, and wonderfully anachronistic.

Although the last part was littered with poor representations of pop celebrities, more than the first three-quarters of the museum was filled with historical figures — royalty (including all of Henry's wives with heads still attached), military leaders dating back to Marc Antony and Cleopatra, politicians (old Winnie looking just like a bulldog smoking a cigar), scientists (although frankly Einstein's hair is much too tame for my taste), authors, artists, inventors, composers, and great thinkers. It wasn't so much the presentation that impressed me (most of the mannequins are jumbled together in no discernible order, with very little set dressing) — it was the oddly inspired choice of characters. Of course you might expect Rembrandt and Michelangelo — but where else in the country will you find a wax sculpture of Thomas Gainsborough? (If you stand in just the right place, he seems to glare at you.) Voltaire? Charles Darwin? Rudyard Kipling? Osceola? And do you even know who William Caxton is? (He introduced the printing press to England.)

I got so much joy out of the odd configurations of lifeless characters — especially Queen Elizabeth, ominously positioned over Diana's shoulder, looking portentous and disapproving as ever. And I couldn't help but snicker at the assemblage of presidents and first ladies they had set up on the day of our visit, which included LBJ and Lady Bird, Gerald and Betty Ford. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, but JFK sans Jackie — why was she excluded from the club?? Sure — some of the sculptures (especially those of modern-day stars) are charmingly inept (the Brangelina twosome are all but unrecognizable, and the pairing of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage a la “Face/Off” is downright frightening.) Many of the figures have been vandalized by thoughtless visitors who think it would be funny to break off Abe Lincoln's middle finger and take it home as a souvenir. And I'm not sure why both Walt Disney and Adolf Hitler are shown as nothing more than severed heads, each resting on a shelf in a glass case — but that quirkiness is part of the charm. It's musty and unkempt and low on production value — and I loved it.

Just don't let the staff fool you with their stories about the museum's Hollywood history — they'll try to tell you that the 1953 horror classic “House Of Wax” with Vincent Price was filmed at the museum's original location up the street, saying that's the same exact staircase you see in the movie (it may have inspired the set design, but pictures in those days were shot almost entirely on studio backlots). However, the place does have an interesting story of its own — the current building sits on land that used to be a surgery ward for the Spanish Military Hospital (lots of amputated arms and legs buried on the surrounding property, which seems gruesomely fitting!)

Ripley's Believe It Or Not

Another local attraction that has gotten (I think unfairly) a bad reputation is Ripley's. Looking at Robert Ripley with those teeth, it's difficult to believe that he was a womanizer (housing as many as five live-in mistresses at a time) — but it's not hard to see why the man was on a life-long quest for oddities (anything that looked weirder than he did was fair game!) If you mention his “Believe It Or Not” museums to most people, they envision human freaks — a man with a unicorn horn growing out of his head, a fellow who can fit three cue balls in his mouth, an old dude who smokes cigarettes through his eye socket, or a woman who can swivel her neck 180 degrees like an owl. You might also hear mention of natural phenomena — like a six-foot high wasp's nest, a perfectly round egg, or a two-headed calf. But along with the shrunken heads and torture devices, you're just as likely to find bizarre works of art that show a degree of patience and skill I know I'll never possess — a full-size Rolls Royce built out of toothpicks, a portrait painted onto a spider web, and a mural made of more than 400,000 postage stamps. My favorites are the famous reproductions sculpted from blackened toast, with the burnt parts scraped away in progressively deeper layers, revealing lighter bread underneath. (The shading on the Sistine Chapel is unbelievable!)

Then there are thousands of items of actual historical significance. Ripley was a one-man Smithsonian when it came to discovering how other cultures function. He took his first trip around the world in 1922 and became fascinated with the people, things, and rituals he found in foreign lands. The man became an obsessive traveler (which I can certainly appreciate), collecting both experiences and artifacts wherever he went. Of course, a horn used to call Tibetan monks to prayer or a sarcophagus from Egypt or a dugout canoe from the South Seas might not seem all that exotic today — but you have to remember that this was a time when not many people traveled outside their own hometown, let alone overseas. Ripley visited 201 foreign countries and introduced 80 million readers to his unusual finds (first through his cartoons and later via radio and TV) — everything from amazing feats of endurance to little-known facts about places most people had never heard of, from small-town trivia to human anomalies.

It's certainly true that the man wanted to be seen as eccentric — Ripley's friends called him “his own greatest 'believe it or not.'” But folks who think he did all this because he couldn't get a real job need to remember that Ripley was quite accomplished before even beginning his explorations. He pitched semi-pro baseball at age 13, sold his first cartoon to Life Magazine at 14, was working at the San Francisco Chronicle by the time he turned 19, and was sketching sports cartoons at the New York Globe at the age of 23. And if you think Ripley was nothing more than a low-rent trickster, you should know that he took his work seriously — in fact, he hired a full-time researcher named Norbert Pearlroth whose only responsibility was to authenticate every fact Ripley published, every oddity he displayed. Pearlroth (who spoke 11 languages and had a work ethic that would impress any Protestant) spent 52 years working ten hours a day, six days a week, finding and verifying unusual facts at the New York Public Library. The staff estimated that he examined some 7,000 books every year, more than 350,000 books during a lifetime of research — that's hardly a scam! And even today, every freaky new acquisition is DNA-tested to make sure it's not a forgery. This attention to detail has paid off — at the peak of his career, Ripley was voted the most popular man in America by the New York Times, received an honorary degree from Dartmouth College, and received more mail than the president.

If you can look beyond the over-the-top marketing and tie-ins to tourist-infested areas of the country, Ripleys Odditoriums are a wonder to behold. And no where is that more true than in St. Augustine. The museum is housed at Warden Castle, a Moorish-revival structure built in 1887 as the winter home of William G. Warden, business partner of John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler. In 1941, the castle was converted into a hotel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband. Ripley fell in love with the building and stayed there every time he visited Florida. He was unable to buy the hotel during his lifetime, but his estate managed to acquire the property after his death — it became the first odditorium to open in the U.S. And it houses some amazing treasures — one of only two exact replicas of the statue of David (hidden discretely behind a hedge so as not to upset passing tourists with delicate sensibilities), a Ferris wheel made of erector sets, a collage made entirely of butterfly wings, and a life-sized model of 8'11″ tall Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history. The only actual “fake” on display is a later incarnation of Barnum's Fiji mermaid (which was meant to be a forgery from the beginning).

The Pirate Museum

The Pirate Museum is a relatively new addition to the St. Augustine tourist scene — newly relocated from Key West in 2010. It houses the largest collection of authentic artifacts from the Golden Age of Piracy — including the only known remaining pirate treasure chest (which originally belonged to Captain Thomas Tew), the oldest pirate “wanted” poster (for the capture of Captain Henry Every), one of only two surviving original Jolly Roger flags, and the 1699 journal kept by Lt. Thomas Longish (providing an account of pirate Captain Kidd's final voyage). The museum is also proud (and rightly so) to display a variety of shipwreck treasures, exclusively on loan from The Florida Division Of Historical Resources — 18th century barshot and grenades, gold and silver, jewelry, weaponry, and pottery. They've got a little bit of everything at this place (weapons, navigational tools, maps, surgical instruments, legal documents, torture devices, and archaeological finds) — each piece displayed with a well-researched description. In fact, just renovating the Pirate Museum building added to the collection — as the wheelchair ramp was being installed, a 17th-century British sword hilt was unearthed (which the museum was allowed to keep and display).

But the museum is about more than just “stuff.” Liberally sprinkled throughout the exhibits are interesting anecdotes about all the major pirates who sailed the waters off the coast — Andrew Ranson (who helped construct the Castillo De San Marco), Robert Searles (responsible for the sacking of St. Augustine), Black Caesar (an African chief who escaped a slave ship to become a pirate), Sir Francis Drake (the queen's most successful privateer scandalously turned pirate), Henry Morgan (who not-so-ironically died of liver failure), Stede Bonnet (a well-educated “gentleman” pirate who actually bought his boat and paid his crew), and of course Edward Teach (otherwise known as Blackbeard, a man whose flag depicted a devil skeleton simultaneously raising a glass and spearing a heart). Interestingly enough, two female pirates also made the cut — Anne Bonny (who disguised herself as a man to serve on Calico Jack's crew) and Mary Read (who avoided a hanging by “pleading her belly” when she was pregnant). I'm not surprised that these ladies fought more fiercely than many of the men on the ship, refusing surrender to the very end — tenacity is a woman's best friend!

In a town where so much of the history is a little dusty, this is also a museum designed to entertain the video game generation — filled with interactive multimedia displays and electronic information booths. Even the most ADHD child out there will manage to stay focused long enough to learn at least a few facts about pirates! There are lots of hands-on exhibits for kids — knot tying, ship-steering, bell-ringing, fake cannon-firing, and the like (you do not want to be in this building when a school group goes through). And if the whole place feels a little Disney-fied, that's because it is — the 3-D sound performance of Blackbeard's last battle (which has the fighting going on all around you) was specifically created for the museum by Uncle Walt's team of Imagineers. After you're done experiencing the good captain's demise (his death rattle sounding in first your right ear, then your left) you can have a conversation with his talking severed head in the next room! But what makes the Pirate Museum most interesting to me is its founder — this venture was not started by a sailor or a historian or even an academic. Best-selling author Pat Croce is known for managing basketball teams, Olympic sports commentary, and writing self-help books — but apparently, he's a pirate aficionado, as well. It all started with a 1684 first edition of “The History Of Bucaniers Of America” by Alexander Esquemelin — the resulting collection is thanks to Croce's lifelong passion for pirate artifacts. Although I will admit it's a little disconcerting to see books with titles like “Lead Or Get Off The Pot” and “Conditioning For Ice Hockey” in the gift shop, next to the eye patches and plastic cutlasses!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream with The Husbert and two fur-babies. Learn more at GettingOrganizedAToZ.com and RamonaCreel.com.

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