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Guests Crave the Rush of a Thrilling Immersive Experience

It’s time for guests to get out of their screens and into some real live action. But reality can be underwhelming. This is where the magic of an immersive experience can transform any setting into an unforgettable event!

Immersive experiences transport participants to another place and time. The best part is experiencing an epic journey without ever leaving the point of origin.

These specialized entertainment activities encourage audience members to become active participants in shows and activities that come alive with lighting, sound, and other decorative elements. Often, these experiences can involve all five senses.

I’ve spent much of my life working in the theatre and television industry, so I know firsthand that the process of producing successful immersive entertainment is very similar to putting on a play or TV show. There are various elements to consider like sets, props, costumes, and — most importantly — the team of people involved in making it happen.

Staff that take part in an immersive production are essentially putting on a show for guests, but they don’t have to be trained actors to do so. They must stay in character and interact with professionalism and consistency – not dissimilar to the behavior demonstrated in every-day hospitality services. Those behind the scenes also work hard to keep things running smoothly so every complicated effort comes together to create a seamless guest experience.

Aside from the performing and technical roles involved, another integral part of an immersive experience is a compelling theme or story.

Guests might follow the life of a historical figure, like in Miami’s Van Gogh experience that takes audience members on a journey from the artist’s humble beginnings all the way through to his artistic inspirations for his most famous works.

Other experiences are based in fantasy, like London’s Alice Underground exhibit that throws guests into a gritty Wonderland where they get to choose their fate with cake and a drink, just like Alice does. If they “survive” the Queen of Hearts (spoiler alert: they do), guests enjoy an eccentric dining experience at the end of their adventure.

An expertly planned and executed immersive experience can turn any space into an alternate reality — even a warehouse or conference room can become a maze of surprises and wonder with the right setup, direction, and attention to details.

I’ve had the good fortune of attending some of the best immersive entertainment events around the world. Read on to discover highlights from my top three visits…

Walk in Van Gogh’s shoes

Set up in an old, rundown theater in downtown Miami, the Van Gogh exhibit takes advantage of all types of mediums to teach guests about the artist’s life and greatest works.

A false floor over the audience seating of the historic Olympia Theater levels the stage with the rest of the huge auditorium, creating what feels like a never-ending promenade. Sections are bordered off with dividers that guide guests down a path of written descriptions, soundscapes, and artwork. Some paintings are recreated to appear three-dimensional so guests can physically explore each element.

The grand finish is a large room – the space over what was the stage of the Olympia – with what feels like infinite walls and ceilings that depict moving images of Van Gogh’s paintings dancing across. Comfy chairs and beanbags are set up for guests to lay about and stare at the spectacle as long as they want. Virtual reality headsets awaited me upon my exit, and an exquisite video program made me feel like I was walking through Van Gogh’s entire life. I explored this for an hour, and I didn’t want to leave.

Although this immersive experience didn’t involve human performers, there were plenty of people running around behind the scenes operating the many technical aspects of the tour.

Ride on Santa’s train

My best friend has played the role of conductor and singer in MiamiCentral’s Polar Express for the past few years. From drinking hot cocoa to wearing pajamas, children and adults alike feel the magic of this special train ride to the “North Pole.”

This holiday adventure begins with Brightline, which is a recent addition to South Florida. Construction of its 235-mile long passenger rail service began in 2019 (built upon Henry Flagler’s work establishing the Florida East Coast Railway). The train’s comfortable railway cars provide the perfect setting for a recreation of the wintry Polar Express story.

The most magical part of the whole experience is the live entertainment. Actors and singers recreate the story, sing Christmas songs, and serve goodies and hot chocolate for a round trip that makes audience members feel like they’ve left sunny South Florida and been inexplicably transported to Santa’s Wonderland.

The production team is skillful with their clever choreography (imagine a bunch of dancers and singers weaving their way through the narrow aisles of a train car!) and script-writing. Guests always leave wanting more, so it’s a major boost to Brightline’s brand when children beg parents to “ride the shiny train” again and again and again and again…

Run from Alice’s nightmare

One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life — and that’s including every Broadway show, adventure park, and gourmet meal I’ve ever enjoyed — would be my journey into Wonderland via Alice Underground.

Alice’s Adventures Underground takes place in an abandoned train station under the streets of London. In fact, during the experience, I felt and heard subway trains rattling nearby. It only adds to the ambiance of this dark, twisted take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

As I entered the experience and was guided through an intricately designed waiting area, I realized every single decoration was giving the audience clues for what to expect in the following hours: The story, we all quickly realized, would be centered around US.

I was soon offered either a piece of “Eat Me” cake and a shot glass labeled “Drink Me.” I chose my fate and was quickly separated from my group and taken on my own unique story through the expertly mapped out spaces that created different story tracks for each guest. Without giving too much away, I will say there were encounters with familiar characters that made me feel like I had fallen down a rabbit hole into another universe.

Eventually, all guests from the same group are reunited at Mad Hatter’s tea party, then ushered into a bar area that offers fun activities like flamingo croquet. The entire production is a result of genius planning, expert production, and enthusiastic cast members (think Renaissance Festival-level commitment).

Immersion is for everyone

All of this may sound amazing — and it may also feel impossible to ever pull off. But creating an exciting immersion experience for guests is possible, even for those starting out small. It’s all about the details, as well as getting staff excited about creating an adventure where guests are the stars.

Another important factor is that guests play an active role in the event, whatever it may be. This role should be clearly defined in an exciting and creative way that takes into account fun AND safety.

There are many activities that can immerse guests in the fun and get them creating a bond with your brand:

  • Cooking or craft classes
  • Escape rooms
  • Wine tastings
  • Holiday-themed games
  • Murder Mystery dinner theatre

These are just some examples of ways to involve staff and guests in some fun that will forever be connected to a special destination. When those memories are created, they will want to be recreated over and over for a long time to come.