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Victoria’s Miniature World is getting bigger

He may describe himself as the “last man standing,” but George Devlin is definitely not content to simply hang around.
George Devlin shows off part of the 1,000-square-foot expansion at Miniature World that is devoted to the legend of King Arthur's Camelot. Devlin, who opened the attraction in the Empress Hotel in 1971, says he thinks Miniature World has endured for more than four decades because "it appeals to the child in all of us."

He may describe himself as the “last man standing,” but George Devlin is definitely not content to simply hang around.

While many of Victoria’s tourist attractions have closed, Miniature World, which Devlin has operated in the Empress Hotel for almost 45 years, is about to open a new wing.

King Arthur’s Camelot — three years and more than $1 million in the making — is a 1,000-square-foot expansion of Miniature World that opens today. The exhibit features several dioramas and scenes that detail the legend of King Arthur.

“It’s an enduring legend,” said Devlin of the new exhibit. “It has all of those wonderful things — chivalry, romance, bravery, the shining knights, mysticism all wrapped into a story that lives on.”

There is a detailed model of Camelot itself, and individual scenes of Merlin’s cave, jousting, the round table, Arthur reaching for Excalibur and Arthur’s death.

Designer Peter Locke has painstakingly crafted and painted, wired and lit each scene to bring the world alive.

During a tour of the new wing, Devlin’s enthusiasm for the miniature scenes, laid out in excruciating detail, is infectious.

And it’s clear his passion for the attraction is one of the reasons it endures.

“I think it appeals to the child in all of us. There’s this wonderment at being a giant looking down on something. It’s fact, fiction and history all blended into a way of entertaining people,” he said. “I’ve been here 45 years and I’m still amazed by it. I’ll walk through and I’ll see things that I haven’t seen before, and it still puts a smile on my face.”

Over the years the attraction has brought smiles to more than seven million visitors. That will increase significantly as Miniature World just signed a 20-year lease with the Empress.

“That’s more than 60 years at this hotel,” he said, noting his daughter — general manager Heather Lang — will shepherd the attraction through the coming years.

“[Camelot] will be my swan song,” said Devlin, who turns 75 in June.

He said it will be time to step back, though he’s the first to admit he hasn’t worked a day since starting with nine exhibits in 1971.

“This has been a labour of love,” he said.

In his time, the attraction has grown to about 85 exhibits that take people across Canada, through battles and wars, dip into the fairy-tale realm and out into space.

“I have to congratulate them on their longevity,” said hospitality industry consultant Frank Bourree of Chemistry Consulting. “The nature of the tourism industry has changed since the ’80s and many of the attractions we had in town couldn’t survive that change.”

Bourree said places like the Classic Car Museum, Royal London Wax Museum and Sealand of the Pacific were focused on family entertainment.

“Tourists today are looking for more experiences — whale watching, fishing, outdoor activities — it’s a major shift,” he said, adding that Devlin’s ability to survive puts him in a strong position.

“There is real opportunity for this attraction to do well, as there’s not as much competition.”

Devlin believes there is room for new attractions in the city, and argues competition would help attract more visitors and retain them for longer periods.

“The visitors have changed,” he said, noting young people now tend to stay away, but they have been replaced by an older visitor looking for a special experience. There are also many visitors from Asia. “The Asian market loves miniaturization.”

And so does Devlin.

“It’s funny, when I graduated high school, I wanted to be jet pilot, little did I know I would end up playing with little toys,” he said.

“It’s been a wonderful thing to fall into. It’s been exciting to see how it pleases people. It’s a very satisfying feeling.”

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