Ybor City Ghost Tour: Tampa's scary successful business story

The Travel Channel ranks the historic Cuban Club in Ybor City as the fourth most haunted building in the nation, according to Max Herman. And that’s great for business: Herman makes his living introducing people to the spirits.

The Cuban Club is the last stop on the nightly Ybor City Ghost Tour, which recently received the Travelers’ Choice Award from Tripadvisors for Best Tours in Florida and among the top 10 percent best attractions worldwide, based on positive reviews of Tripadvisor’s clients. This is the third year in a row that Herman’s business, called The Official Tampa Bay Tour Company, has received that honor.

“Every time we get it, it doesn’t feel any different than just pride and joy,’’ says Herman. 

“Being in the top ten percent worldwide, pretty damn good,’’ says Herman, 36, who speaks with the easy delivery of an inveterate promoter. “We’re even competing with skydivers and stuff, so we’re the thrill that you can get in Tampa, Florida that you can’t get anywhere else.’’

Herman’s father, Lonnie Herman, launched the business in 2008 with a walking history tour. Now, the company offers walking ghost tours and history tours of Ybor City and downtown Tampa. Max Herman and five other guides that he trained conduct day and night tours seven days a week.

He talked with 83 Degrees about the business.

What is the Ybor City ghost tour like?

The ghost tour starts in one of the famous cigar bars in Ybor City, King Corona Cigars, and I tell people the reason I do that is to get the smell of cigars on them so the ghosts recognize them better. Of course, back in the day, everybody smoked cigars. ... So if you have the smell of cigars on your clothes, the ghosts might say, “Ah, you’re my kind of people.’’

From there we move on to some of the social clubs of Ybor City. All of them are over 100 years old and preserved, and all of them are known to be some of the most haunted buildings in America. We also make some little anecdote stops about heartbreak and murder that happened here and there. The old hospital, we stop at that as well. But we always end in the Cuban Club in Ybor City, which was named by the Travel Channel one of the most haunted buildings in America, (in the) top spots, it’s number four.

We give people some EMF meters (which measure changes in energy) and some flashlights and we say, “Now we’re going to let the building do the talking as we walk through. We investigate it from the bottom all the way to the top.

Are there any well-known ghosts in the Cuban Club?

There are several ghosts that just happen to be random, but some of the more famous ones are the woman in white, who was, sadly, pushed to her death from a balcony of the ballroom in the Cuban Club. We also know there was an actor that hung himself on stage after a failed performance. And one of the more shy ghosts but also one of the more photogenic ones is a little boy named Jimmy, or Jaime. …

One day little Jimmy, he came looking for his daddy in the club, who happened to be upstairs gambling. But he opened the first door he could find, the one on the street, wandered into the empty basement, slipped in the pool and drowned.

Do you believe in ghosts?

You know, I’ll be frank with you, I started this tour going, you know, I’ll make a little money telling them scary stories. But I do believe in ghosts now because over the past 8 or 9 years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen several of them. Not only that but they speak to me, they will come right up to my ear, speaking Spanish and asking me questions as I’m walking through. In fact, those EMF meters, whenever we walk in, I go, “Hey, point them at me and see what happens.” All of them go off because I feel like as soon as I walk in they all surround me. “Max is here. Max is here.’’

You said the Ghost Hunters show declared there were 150 ghosts in Cuban Club.

One hundred and fifty-plus. They said at least 150.

They didn’t all die in the Cuban Club, did they?

No. I remind people, if you were an apparition that wasn’t ready to go to the next realm or whatever you believe in, wouldn’t you want to spend your time in the place where you maybe got your first kiss, or met your best friend, or had your best birthday party? So all the spirits that occupy this building, I tend to think that they’re just in there having a good time. It’s kind of like the Haunted Mansion at Disney, but for real.

How did this all begin?

After the housing market crash in 2008, my father, who was a pretty damn good real estate agent, ended up having to find something else to do. And scrambling at his age, which at the time was in his late 50s, early 60s, it’s kind of hard to go find a new job. And he decided, “You know what, for some fun, I think I’ll start a history tour of Ybor to get some money and meet some people. Maybe I can network.’’ 

But his dedication to it was so good that it ended up being quite popular and became his full-time job. And just a couple of years after that, he took me on as a young apprentice, and I learned all my moves from him. Not just learned the moves but perfected them and took it to another level.

Is your father still with the company?

He’s still kicking but he’s no longer in the company. A couple of years ago, he saw my management skills and also the reviews of people coming this way, and he told me, “I can’t do this forever.’’ 

And he's now 74 years old. … He said, “Here’s a number. If you can reach that number and give me that number, the tour company will be yours.’’ So after some hard work and savings, I finally reached the number. I am now the sole proprietor.

How did you research for the tour?

Ybor City is one of only three historic landmark districts in all of Florida, so the history tour itself was pretty much laid out. You just pretty much had to put together a script and a route that would perfect it. And my dad, he’s an entertainer by training. Like I said, he was a salesman. He was really good at putting together this script and this route.

But while we were doing this history tour, we constantly would have people asking questions, “I heard this building is haunted.’’ “I heard that one’s haunted.’’ “is it true that this place is haunted?’’ And I started doing a little research as well as some of the other people that we worked with to put together a ghost tour.

Now, the ghost tour we founded at the perfect time because at the same time we were developing it, the television shows – the Travel Channel, the Ghost Hunters all started coming to Tampa, Florida. So we enlarged this story at the perfect time. People would go, “Tampa, Florida? I can’t believe that’s on the Travel Channel for hauntings,’’ and they’d Google us... and they would find the ghost tour. And being a bit of a showman myself, people would walk away saying, “This is the best ghost tour I’ve ever been on.”

For more information, go to Ybor City Ghost Tour.
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.