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Not-so-ghastly ghostly guests

The unexplained apparitions said to inhabit the Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa seem mostly friendly, and have drawn the interest of a television show.

LORRI HELFAND
Published March 27, 2004

BELLEAIR - Some say the Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa has a number of guests who never checked out.

There are the lights that flash on and off by themselves, and the doors that slam open and shut when no one's around.

And then there's the woman in the hoop skirt and fancy hat who guests swear they've seen roaming the halls.

Ghostly tales like those have made the Belleview Biltmore the scene of an upcoming episode of Haunted Hotels for the Travel Channel's Weird Travels series. A couple of weeks ago, a production crew from Authentic Entertainment visited the hotel to shoot the segment. An air date hasn't been set, according to Lauren Lexton, an executive producer for the Los Angeles-based production company.

Hotel spokeswoman Kelly Grass Prieto said she submitted information about the 107-year-old hotel to the Travel Channel after hearing about the series from the state tourism office.

"I jumped on it because I thought we'd be the perfect match for the show," Prieto said.

She was right, according to Chris Bray, Authentic Entertainment field producer.

"There are certainly places that you can see where the ghost stories come from. Especially the fifth floor. It's one of the more spooky places," Bray said. "During the day, it's such a beautiful property, but definitely at night it takes on a different character."

For the show, Bray's cast re-enacted the courtship of Maisie and Morton Plant.

Plant, who ran the hotel after the death of his father, Henry Bradley Plant, led the fund drive for the Clearwater hospital that bears his name.

Morton Plant spotted Maisie there almost 90 years ago and was smitten at first sight. She was supposedly married to another man at the time, so Plant paid her husband $8-million to disappear.

Morton and Maisie also reportedly traded their New York mansion to jeweler Pierre Cartier for $100 and a strand of perfect, natural pearls worth more than a $1-million. Cartier's Fifth Avenue jewelry store building in New York is their former home.

Maisie may be the woman wandering the halls, according to lore.

"Legend has it that she's looking for her pearls," said hotel security guard Ron Alberts.

Alberts calls himself a skeptic, but said, "Every time I find a new nook, I look."

The hotel, built in 1895 by railroad magnate Henry Bradley Plant, has a lot of those nooks: underground tunnels and corridors and secret wooden staircases.

In 1897, the hotel opened as a winter vacation resort where wealthy guests arrived on private rail cars. Luggage was carted across the lawn on side tracks, which ran under the hotel.

Bray said his crew also shot a scene about the bride who leaped from her fourth-story balcony after hearing that her newlywed husband was killed in a car crash.

Alberts said some think she's the same woman who has been seen peering out windows on the fifth floor, which has been blocked off for years.

Guests routinely ask the security crew to check out racket coming from that floor and weird sightings from throughout the hotel, Alberts said.

"We'll check it, and there's nothing there," he said.

But guests have nothing to worry about, said Diana Griffin, hotel corporate sales manager, because most of the tales are of "friendly ghosts."

Despite the tales, resident resort manager Martin Smith said he's not a believer.

"Old buildings, they creak, they move, they settle," he said.

But some employees say they can't ignore the spooky experiences they've had.

Executive pastry chef Nomeda Baronas hasn't seen any spirits, but insists she's felt them.

Sometimes, when she whips up desserts in the hotel kitchen, Baronas feels a hearty tap on the shoulder, she said. But when she turns around, no one is there.

Still, she's not afraid of her companion, she said.

"I like him," Baronas said. "I don't feel alone."

And Vann Dennis, an administrative assistant for the hotel sales department, said she occasionally is joined by a dapper, 6-foot-3 gentleman when she rides the elevator. The somewhat transparent elevator operator is polite, she said, and tips his top hat as she walks out the door.

"The first time, it kind of made me jump a little," Dennis said.

But the two came to an agreement, she said.

"We have to ride this elevator together," Dennis said she told him. "You stay in your place, and I'll stay in mine."

He just nodded his head, Dennis said.

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

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