In 2005, Michael Solari and J.T. Thompson went shopping for a beach house on the Central Florida coast, turned inland, and settled on a 10,000-sq.-ft. fixer-upper in DeLand, Fla., that was built for John B. Stetson, the 19th century baron credited with inventing the cowboy hat. A few years and a few million dollars’ worth of repairs later, they opened their doors to tourists and rented out their grounds for the occasional wedding. They shared some marketing costs with a nearby restaurant owner, who figured to benefit from tourist traffic, and asked visitors to post reviews to TripAdvisor, the travel website.
That strategy paid off. In May, TripAdvisor crunched some numbers and determined that the Stetson Mansion—not Walt Disney World, the Kennedy Space Center, or Key West—was the state’s most-liked tourist attraction. The local press jumped on the story, drawing in more visitors. As many as 15,000 people will stop by this year, each paying $20 to $30 for tours that can last more than an hour. That’s nothing by Disney standards, but it’s welcome business for the proprietors. Thompson, 49, also gets satisfaction from placing ahead of better-known landmarks. “This little mom-and-pop beat the billion-dollar mouse,” he says.
Solari and Thompson didn’t originally think they were launching a business. When they bought the house—it was listed for $585,000—they needed to repair the exterior, interior, and the home’s 10,000 stained glass windows. To cover costs, the pair teamed up with a local museum that lent them nonprofit status and started seeking in-kind donations. Sherwin-Williams supplied paint for the roof, and American Standard provided bathroom fixtures, Thompson says. In all, they received about $2 million in products from corporate sponsors.
As the project progressed, the two men settled into roles. Solari, 54, who has other investments in real estate, minds the architectural details. Thompson, who once owned a deli and a tropical fish shop in Orange, N.J., serves as the front man, greeting guests and proffering historical details. The house was built in 1886, after Stetson’s doctor advised the hat man to seek a warmer climate. President Grover Cleveland visited the house, as did King Edward VII and assorted Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Mellons. Thomas Edison, a friend of Stetson, wired the house for electricity. In 1978, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Asking guests to leave reviews may have helped propel the Stetson Mansion up TripAdvisor’s list, which was calculated by the quality, quantity, and recentness of reviews, but soliciting comments wouldn’t do much for Solari and Thompson if people didn’t enjoy their visits. TripAdvisor’s top landmark attractions in the other 49 states are mostly national parks, scenic highways, monuments, and museums. The Fargo Theatre, an art deco movie theater in Fargo, N.D., is the only other standalone business to make the list, though it didn’t have to outrank the likes of Disney.
Ninety-six percent of the mansions’ 714 TripAdvisor reviews give the destination an “excellent” rating, the highest possible. “WOW—Walk in the footsteps of Mr. Stetson and be awed,” wrote one recent visitor, who touted the mansion’s inlaid floors, meditation garden, and informative tour. Thompson says the combination of the Stetson history and the experience of taking a tour in a private home is often affecting. “It’s turned out to be emotional for a lot of our guests.”