Amusement parks have been a staple for family entertainment in the US since Coney Island opened in 1895 and in many ways haven’t changed much since. The concept of a themed amusement park originated with Santa Land, now called Holiday World, which opened in 1946. Then, Disney took the theme park idea to new levels when it opened Disneyland, “The happiest place on earth,” in 1955, with story-based amusement park rides and attractions. These days, however, a few companies are pushing the boundaries of location-based entertainment further to create experiences that would blow your grandfather’s mind. One such company is Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf.
Meow Wolf was once an arts collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico has become, in not so very many years, a thriving company. The innovative group now has three successful location-based entertainment installations under its collective belt. According to Meow Wolf, the installations in Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Denver have attracted more than three million visitors since the first on opened in 2016. All-day tickets vary from $35 to $49 per location.
“House of Eternal Return,” the debut permanent installation, takes place inside what looks like a regular house at first glance. But, the 20,000 square foot installation has secret passages, portals into magical worlds, and other surprises. One hundred thirty-five artists helped construct what Meow Wolf calls an “immersive arts experience.” It opened in 2016 in Santa Fe with the support of “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin.
The wild success of “House of Eternal Return” – after all where else can you walk through a washing machine into another dimension? – led to a Denver-based thrill ride, “Kaleidoscape,” an interactive, artist-driven voyage in May, 2019. And that led to Meow Wolf’s second installation, “Omega Mart,” which opened in the Las Vegas's AREA 15 in February, 2021.
More than 325 artists created more than 250 unique projects for “Omega Mart” in four anchor spaces that include a real supermarket and a bar. The supermarket looks like a store and some edibles are for sale, but it’s really an art project. A stack of soup cans labeled Camel’s Sop (as in Sopwith, no doubt) stand near a meat case with tattooed chickens and a bust made from what looks like ground beef. Open the soft-drink cooler and you can walk into a surreal world. Stairs take you into “Dramcorp’s” trippy techno-research division with interactive displays, tunnels, catwalks, and slides. Flashing, strobing, moving lights in every color and pattern imaginable keeps things lively.
In September 2021, Meow Wolf opened an even larger third installation, an interactive psychedelic galaxy. The Denver-based “Convergence Station” is a four-story art project cum immersive theme park and world-building experience. Visitors choose any of four worlds to travel into: A grimy metropolis, a natural swamp world, a frozen space castle, or an ossuary, each with hidden rooms and passageways. 300 creatives spent three years creating the space.
One of the visionaries leading Meow Wolf into the world of location-based experiences was co-founder Vince Kadlubek, currently serving on the board of directors. In 2019, Kadlubek stepped back from his role as CEO to develop Meow Wolf’s five-year vision and advise the chief creative, financial, and content officers who replaced him.
Kadlubek: The informal entity began in 2008 as a social club. We formalized everything into a business in 2015, seven years later. The first exhibition was in 2016 and we’ve been operating profitably now for six years.
Kadlubek: We never thought we would get to where we are. We always knew we were doing something special, that something was going on that could touch the hearts of many people. Even back in the day when we were building stuff out of recycled material. But the distance between who we were and where we were trying to get to was vast. We were so inexperienced.
Kadlubek: We absolutely needed to be naïve. Naïveté allows you to be focused on A to B to C to D. It allows you to hone in on what matters. We needed to not know what we didn’t know to be able to do this.
Kadlubek: We start with a framework. With the House [of Eternal Return] the framework was that there’s a house with secret passageways that lead to different dimensions. That was it. Then we allowed artists to do whatever they wanted within. The narrative team observed and cultivated a through line. They answered questions like, “What do all the dimensions have to do with the family?” It’s critical that they answered those questions after the fact.
Kadlubek: Creating experiences based on story is what Disney does. What Disneyland is. It’s predictable and prescriptive. Because the story is defined, the user doesn’t have much space to explore. It is important for us to not to let story dictate. We apply story after the fact.
In reality, in our everyday lives, story doesn’t dictate everything. Sometimes you try to set a story and articulate on that story. Then out of nowhere, something happens. Something medical, a random person. Life is more about random shit happening and you creating a story around it.
Kadlubek: When you’re a writer, you’re used to telling the whole story and as you know, a lot of writers want control. So, I give credit to the narrative team for all three of our exhibits in yielding and being observers of what’s happening with the artists and helping sync things together. The only other industry that does this is the video game industry. Video games have influenced everything in our lives. Nonlinear storytelling is a parallel for us.
Kadlubek: At Meow Wolf, we love physical components and tactile art. We don’t have any judgement around technology, no dogma. We live with it, use it, and love it in our lives. We connect tactile and physical components of our artwork through technology.
Kadlubek; A basic place is with physical buttons and sensors – things we embed into the physical artwork to communicate a signal and draw response. A lighting change. A sound shift. We like to give people control of experiences by embedding these components into the sculptures. Those same physical computing components can also drive a response that happens within a digital realm. We can connect our physical components to a spatial computing experience where physical is driving what’s happening in the digital realm. When we talk about metaverse, the physical and digital combine.
Kadlubek: Our laser harp is probably most well-known. It’s a pyramid sculpture with 30 laser beams that shoot up from each arm of the pyramid. You can walk up to the laser beams and pluck them like a harp. People play music together. We have small Miyazaki-style characters that purr when you rub their heads. We use the conductivity of a person’s hand to send a signal that outputs a purring sound.
Kadlubek: Buttons are fine, but we like unexpected things. When a physical object that doesn’t feel like it’s technical is touched and gives an experience. A lot of people do things with motion sensors and projection maps… but the physical side is where the majority of our technology has existed. We have tried to do more RFID story experiences, though, because they allow us create a more personalized experience. We know where people are when they’re attached to RFID and can extend their experience.
Kadlubek: I like location-based VR where the physical world still matters. Sandbox VR [San Francisco], The Void[defunct], Jump [Salt Lake City, Utah from Void-creator James Jensen]. I wouldn’t take full VR off the table, but we need to do it in a way that is connected to our lives.
Kadlubek: We have a Pepper’s Ghost effect, a traditional Pepper’s Ghost effect. [JB4]
Kadlubek: After Eternal Return, we knew we had just scratched the edge of something in terms of immersive worlds. We were a small company in Santa Fe, but we knew it was important to take Meow Wolf to another level. We wanted to be compared to Disney and Cirque de Soleil, to be connected to large scale, mind-blowing projects. That’s why we chose go massive in Las Vegas and Denver. But I don’t think we’ll continue that trajectory. It depends on the market but for the most part they’ll fall into some medium range of size. For most markets in the country there is a sweet spot. So, we will try to find out what that sweet spot is.
Kadlubek: We’re looking at different formats. Maybe not a large building in a city. Maybe a large outdoor park.Smaller buildings. There’s a lot of R&D going on at Meow Wolf. It’s important for artists and innovators to have space to explore concepts. We’re taking those R&D projects now and showing them in different forms like at festivals.