Fantasy worlds have always attracted people fascinated by the sense of wonder and awe created by imaginative minds and skilled labor of master craftspeople.

Large scale theme parks with attractions like Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter that transport you to entirely immersive environments take hundreds of millions of dollars to build. With huge footprints and extremely high costs, there are not many options to have such an experience that requires many people to travel. Cities hosting these amusement parks become destinations for tourists wanting to experience such immersive attractions. 

Families and individuals looking to get a good taste of what the giant amusement parks can offer, might not need to venture too far from home to feel that sense of wonder. With the rise of local artist collectives combining talents and skills across disciplines, cities across the country are now hosting a new generation of attractions with smaller-scale but equally immersive themed installations.

Inspired by nature, tech, holidays, music and more, these brands are leveraging light, sound, projections, lasers, fog machines, art, mixed-reality, costuming, construction, sculpture, painting, and the creative designs of artists working together to transform a space into a fantastic wonderland realm. 

Meow Wolf

City Kennedy, artist owner of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return

Meow Wolf creates interactive, and immersive multidimensional experiences that mesmerize guests of all ages with secret passages and magic portals that inspire exploration. Incorporating professional video production and storytelling, Meow Wolf released a documentary about their come up titled “Origin Story” to share their journey. All of these elements under one roof and the sheer scale of the operation create a setting where you lose the sense of time and are in a constant state of awe, feeling entertained and inspired. 

Originating in 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this rag-tag collective of artists had humble beginnings of dumpster diving for material. Now, they are a funded B-Corp and are backed by the creator of Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin. Currently operating and selling tickets for an exhibit called “House of Eternal Return” in Santa Fe, Meow Wolf’s CEO, Vince Kadlubek has plans to expand. 

Announced as part of the growth, Kadlubek is opening facilities in Las Vegas (2020), Denver (2021), Washington D.C (2022), and Phoenix (2024). The Phoenix location will be a special one because they are combing a hotel with 400 artist-designed rooms and 75,000-square-feet of exhibition space, 10,000 of which is dedicated as a music and performance venue. 

Natura Obscura

Photo Credit: Natura Obscura

Located inside the building of The Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA) in Englewood, Colorado, is an immersive art experience called Natura Obscura, which translates to “hidden nature.” Operated by Prismajic’s principals, Eric Jaenike and Jennifer Mosquera, installations are created in collaboration with many other artists who contribute to the six galleries: Natura Obscura The Forest, The Archive, Simulacra Vision, From Canyon to Cosmos: A Monk Dreams, The Time Machine & Cabinet of Curiosities and Impossibilities, and Synthetic Nature. 

Recreating a surrealist forest, this experience is heavily influenced by nature and intertwines augmented reality, digital technology, light, sound, and even smell to stimulate all the senses. Upon entry, you receive a blacklight flashlight to uncover hidden messages along your self-explored path and are advised to download the Natura Obscura app to awaken the spirits of the forest. Guests can use the app’s AR technology to bring spirit creatures representing the elements to life when they find the activation items scattered along the journey. 

Otherworld

Photo Credit: Otherworld

Though the midwest is a seemingly quiet place, there’s been some noise in Columbus, Ohio over the recent opening of Otherworld. Found by Jordan Renda, Otherworld describes itself as “a new kind of art+entertainment experience that combines elements of large-scale Burning Man style art, immersive theater, escape room, children’s museum, and haunted house.” Tactile floors and walls combined with secret passageways, interactive art, and mixed reality experiences make Otherworld a futuristic 32,000 square-foot playhouse. 

With a fusion of science fiction and fantasy, the main differentiator of this experience to something like Meow Wolf is that visitors are more like characters in the storyline where they venture through a choose-your-own-adventure. The storyline described on their website should be enough to get you excited to actually visit Ohio. 

“You have volunteered as a beta tester at Otherworld Industries, a pioneering tech company specializing in alternate realm tourism. But upon arrival at the desolate research facility, you’re left on your own… Exploring restricted laboratories inevitably leads you to discover a gateway to bioluminescent dreamscapes featuring alien flora, primordial creatures, and expanses of abstract light and geometry… ”

Escaping to faraway lands but staying local is now possible and we are likely to see more artists group together in other cities across the country. Supporting local artists is certainly an obvious benefit as this rise of experiential fantasy tech art creates a new venue for creatives to contribute and showcase their work. Places like Natura Obscura, Meow Wolf, and Otherworld are selling high volumes of tickets which makes this a profitable endeavor for artists.

Do you have a go-to wonderland escape? Let us know where in the comments below. For those of you in NYC, do check out Grit Daily’s talk on this topic with brand-installation artist, Kevin Reed on August 6. It’s also Andy Warhol’s birthday.