Believe It or Not!
On a humid August morning, Jim Pattison Jr. hits the ground running. Dressed casually in comfortable, white rubber-soled dress shoes, navy dress pants, and an untucked red polo shirt, the president of Ripley Entertainment is easy to spot on the move. Upon leaving the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on foot, Pattison hustles up a sleepy side street parallel to the scenic Little Pigeon River. The brisk half-mile trek to Ripley’s Believe It or Not is a route he’s taken dozens of times. Without warning, Pattison steps off the sidewalk and makes a sharp left turn to pass through a parking lot—a shortcut he knows well—until a recently added fence at a new arcade stops him in his tracks.
“Okay, we’ll cut through,” he says heading for the back door of the new arcade. With an early afternoon flight departing from McGhee Tyson Airport located an hour away, time is precious. Yet, with the smell of fresh carpet hanging in the air, Pattison slows to inspect the new facility packed with the latest redemption and video games.
“I’m very curious, so I like to see what other people are doing,” he tells Funworld. The pause is brief, as Pattison exits through the front door into the sunshine and hikes up an increasing grade along Gatlinburg’s famed Parkway, home to the majority of the 10 attractions that Ripley’s owns and operates in the market.
Once inside Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Pattison proceeds into a stairwell, where he effortlessly scales three stories to begin an impromptu inspection. He pushes, pulls, and presses every button, lever, and actuator—reminiscent of a 9-year-old boy who slips outside the watchful eye of his mother. The frenzied pace mirrors how Pattison says Ripley’s adapts to an ever-changing business market.
“We’re very fast; we’re able to do things that most companies can’t,” he says. “While pivoting during COVID-19, our company and our people did an exceptional job of shrinking way down when everything was closed, and then ramping back up very quickly and successfully.”
The leader of Ripley Entertainment oversees more than 100 attractions found around the world, which include everything from wax museums and laser tag facilities, to miniature golf and tour trains rolling across St. Augustine, Florida. The portfolio of attractions reflects Pattison’s mantra at Ripley’s: Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.
“Every year we get bigger,” he says. “It’s because of our people and our innovation—and cutting the bureaucracy to as little as we can.”
Pattison’s vision for growth, coupled with his natural curiosity, and his passion for fun, are poised to advance the attractions industry forward as he becomes IAAPA’s 2023 Chairman of the Board.
Respect Thy Guest, Know Their Market
While Ripley’s continues to set its sights on expanding (to date, their attractions operate in 10 different countries), Pattison remains grounded by a simple conviction.
“All we do is we sell increments of time to families to have fun. And basically, our target is one to two hours—one to two hours—just that little sliver of time,” he explains. That revelation is not a limitation; rather, it’s a compass when evaluating potential growth. Thus, owning a large theme park is outside of the company’ strategy. However, placing a Ripley’s branded attraction inside a park, like Dubai’s Global Village or the United Kingdom’s Blackpool Pleasure Beach, allows the company to benefit from a partnership with a large attendance base.
In addition, Pattison never forgets Ripley’s target audience.
“Our customer? We know who they are: They’re blue-collar working family and friends. And as long as we fit their criteria, we’re good,” he says.
When looking to expand into fresh markets, he advises operators in the global attractions industry to ask one simple question: “Is this our customer? Your number one priority in any market you’re going to go into is that you have to know your customer.”
In Gatlinburg, this philosophy continues to reap benefits for Ripley Entertainment. The company recently acquired an alpine coaster complex and became part owner of a family entertainment center (FEC), complete with go karts, in neighboring Pigeon Forge. While both entertainment complexes were preexisting, Pattison says he simply evaluated the market and remembered his core customer. Our customers trust our brand which allows us to use it on new attraction concepts and other entertainment.
“We’re not big on studying things for years,” Pattison tells Funworld. “Our philosophy is ‘Let’s try it.’ And if it’s working out—but we don’t get it quite right—then we’ll make adjustments. And if it doesn’t work at all, then get rid of it and go to the next one.”
Another recent purchase sits next to the busy gondola station at Anakeesta, an outdoor family attraction nestled in the Smoky Mountains above Gatlinburg’s bustling Parkway. The indoor property is currently home to laser tag, an indoor miniature golf course themed to ’80s pop culture, and an expansive gift store selling retro merchandise. (A giant Rubik’s Cube affixed to the roof of the three-story building serves as a clue to what’s waiting inside.) While Pattison says Ripley’s was not looking to operate a vertically stacked indoor golf attraction, the opportunity to clinch the real estate proved valuable.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry. Everything we’re doing is a test site right now. We have a good location. Let’s put something in.’” He hints a different concept will eventually occupy the site when an expansion makes sense. Other concepts Ripley’s is developing include blacklight minigolf, selfie labs, and illusion museums.
Yet for all the successes, Pattison admits there have been mistakes over the years, like entering the wrong market, saying “we confused numbers of people with our customer.” However, as a leader, he is quick to take responsibility for those mistakes.
“First of all, no one’s made more mistakes than me, collectively, in the company,” he says, believing a mistake is an opportunity for an operator to reevaluate. In fact, he encourages his managers in the field to take calculated risks.
“If I make a decision—and it might not be the right one—he’s going to say, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t have done that. Let’s fix it.’ But I don’t have to be fearful of my job,” explains Suzanne DeSear, general manager of nine Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg. “If I have a problem and I call him to ask, ‘Do you have a minute?’ Jim doesn’t hesitate.” It’s an example of the culture of trust that Pattison has created as president.
Trust Your Team
One thing missing at Ripley Entertainment: a heavily occupied corporate suite in Orlando. Instead, Pattison has created an organizational structure where the headquarters office supports regional attractions, and operators are empowered to make decisions.
“We’re very entrepreneurial. Our managers and the people in the field have a very short reporting line and structure,” he shares. “They have a lot of autonomy to make decisions within the parameters of their budget.”
That includes DeSear, who put a referral bonus program in place to attract and retain good employees. When a new hire completes orientation and begins work, the referring employee receives a bonus. After the new employee completes 90 days of employment, the referring employee will receive a second, larger bonus.
“That’s helped a lot getting new employees,” DeSear tells Funworld. What also helped? A new perspective. Before COVID-19, DeSear says she shied away from hiring high school students (ironic, since she started with Ripley’s while in high school as an hourly photographer).
“Now, we’re in the mindset we can train them out of the gate the way we want them. They don’t come in with the bad habits from somebody else. So, we’ve kind of taken a new mindset,” she explains. During holidays when established employees return home (from college), DeSear will rehire them.
“I just tell them to send me an email and say, ‘Hey, I’m coming home. I need money for Christmas. Put me on schedule,’ and I’ll schedule them,” she says.
Caring for Staff as Family
DeSear says working for Ripley’s is like being part of a family. She knows firsthand: Her husband Ryan is vice president of Ripley’s U.S. operations—and her direct supervisor. Pattison supports both Suzanne and Ryan in their unique roles.
“If it’s something a little bit out of my realm where I can’t make the decision, I will take it to Ryan. But, if it’s something big, then I usually go to Jim—not because I’m jumping over him [Ryan]—but because we’re married,” she explains with a grin.
“One of the things I’ve always liked about Jim is how modest he is; it’s not about him, it’s about our business,” Ryan DeSear says. “It’s super important [to Jim] that his team gets the respect that he feels they deserve.”
In November 2016, when a wildfire devastated the Smoky Mountains region, Ryan DeSear was one of the last people to evacuate Gatlinburg. He stayed in touch with Pattison throughout the night, as flames lapped at the aquarium’s back door. Miraculously, no animals inside Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies were harmed. However, 21 employees lost their homes and everything inside.
Immediately, Pattison instructed Ryan DeSear and his team to transition from operating attractions to serving others. With all of Ripley’s Gatlinburg attractions shuttered, the company focused on finding temporary housing for the 21 employees displaced—and purchased new furniture for their apartments. Chefs worked out of the aquarium’s kitchen and cooked meals for first responders. Corporate employees crammed supplies into a private jet and dispatched the aircraft to eastern Tennessee.
When asked about the heartfelt response, Pattison simply responds with, “Well, it’s family. You look after your family.” The same can be said of Pattison’s wife of 42 years, Dale, and family, who support him while staying outside the spotlight.
Vision for IAAPA
As a developer and growth leader, Pattison would like to evolve IAAPA during his year as chairman of the board.
“I would like to see things like we have 100,000 people around the world active in IAAPA; that we make it affordable for every country to participate,” Pattison says. “We [need] to become an organization that is not bureaucratic but has a lot of autonomy. I’m huge for regionalization. What we do in Orlando has no bearing [on] what happens necessarily in Vietnam or Albania or Johannesburg.”
He would also like to introduce trade shows in Africa and Latin America.
Currently, Pattison chairs the IAAPA Committee Restructuring Task Force. The group is reevaluating everything from the number of board members to how many subcommittees IAAPA has.
“Decentralization and regionalization, I think, is the key to the growth of our industry.”
One thing that cannot change? “We are absolutely the number one organization on the planet for safety and education for our industry,” he says.
As a 104-year-old company, growth is rooted in Ripley’s DNA. Pattison revealed to Funworld that the company has undeveloped property near Orlando’s Top Golf, Andretti Indoor Karting and Games, and the site of Universal’s Epic Universe theme park, now under construction.
“Orlando is our smallest footprint as far as attractions, because it’s a very competitive market,” he says, hinting he would like to develop additional attractions in the central Florida market.
“My favorite word—once we accomplish something—is ‘Next.’ I like that.”
Authentically Pattison Jr.
One-on-one with IAAPA’s new chairman
Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, has a reputation for speaking candidly—and from the heart. While these pages depict the characters that Pattison has embodied over the years, underneath the costumes, is a leader who is direct, and a humanitarian who genuinely cares for his employees.
Funworld sat down with Pattison for authentic reflection, which in true Ripley’s fashion, proved unique. As he provided the thoughts below, sharks swirled beneath our feet aboard a glass bottom boat at the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
“They’re curious,” Pattison says of the sharks inches under the glass. “They can see your camera bag over there; [they’re] probably looking at the bag to see if it’s food.” (See photo on p. 80.)
On Workplace Inclusivity
“Whoever you are, we welcome you; everybody needs to be themselves. What we look for is that you have integrity; you treat people fairly; you look after our guests; and you’re a team player. It doesn’t matter who you are. I don’t see why it should.”
Characteristics of a Strong Manager
“If you look in most of our businesses, our offices are the worst looking place. And the reason is we don’t want our management in their office. We want them out in our attractions. We want leaders to be around our guests and our team members as much as possible—that’s where they should be interacting. Typically, we don’t want people to be complacent. We want them to be talking about what’s next.”
“I travel all over, and I try to never walk past an attraction. I always go in. You have to keep upgrading your products. I say, ‘Don’t worry. Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work out, then we’ll go with something else—or we’ll make it better.’”
Advice to Young Professionals: Be Curious
“I think the number one thing is make sure you pick the right culture fit for you, where you can grow. The second thing: Be curious, be free, be flexible. Be willing to try any job, so you can learn it. The other thing that’s important is to develop your personality face-to-face. I see a lot of young people now who are not as comfortable socially. It’s hard for them to look somebody in the eye, smile, and say, ‘How are you today? How can I help you?’ Hard work overcomes a lot of things, so you have to put in the time.”
Staying True to Yourself
“You are what you are. Build on it! You only have so much time to live your life. So you should enjoy it. And that’s the best part of the industry: It’s a fun business and generally speaking, high-quality people that are in the business. And our job is to make people happy.”