From Disneyland in California to Broadway in New York, America has long catered to those looking for an immersive experience, and few do it better. Here’s just ten of my favourite places to visit in the U.S.A. when looking to escape reality; immersing yourself in art, music, scenery, cowboys (you’ll see what I mean) and occasionally theme park rides. And in this climate, that escape couldn’t be more welcomed.
Plus, with Christmas just around the corner – could these be some last minute gift ideas for your future travel to the region?
Sleep No More
Where? New York City
The idea of the interactive theatre experience is nothing new. From “whodunit” dinner parties to whatever it is people get up to at those Rocky Horror screenings, there’s always been a market for those of us who want to feel a part of the action. Even sitting front row at a comedy show brings out the more daring individuals.
But few interactive productions have gained the level of talk and acclaim that Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More has since it was unveiled in New York City in 2011. Its unique take on the classic story of Macbeth has redefined the experience as an art form into itself, and set a new bar for the genre to follow.
It inspires repeat viewing; following different sets and characters and storylines, as you wear a mask and explore the McKittrick Hotel – a fictional, incredibly detailed recreation of a five story hotel on the west side of Manhattan. For everything you see, there were twenty things you don’t. And there are some things you’ll experience that no one else does.
Sleep No More is an incredible journey into an adaptation of one of literatures most well known stories; an adaptation of unequaled originality.
Where? Denver, Santa Fe, Las Vegas & Grapevine, TX (in 2023)
If Sleep No More redefined the theatrical experience as one that can be truly innovative and immersive, then Meow Wolf redefined the art space with the same intent.
The collective debuted in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2016, before expanding to Denver and Las Vegas in 2021. Next year, a fourth location is on its way to Grapevine, Texas, just near the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) airport – one of America’s busiest travel hubs.
In each location, Meow Wolf showcases a unique concept. In Santa Fe, the “House of Eternal Return” takes you into a house with surprises around every corner, in Vegas, “Omega Mart” is a Supermarket that isn’t quite what it appears.
In Denver, where I experienced Meow Wolf earlier this year, they offer the expansive “Convergence Station” – which brings four alien worlds together. It’s by far the largest Meow Wolf installation to date, traversing four stories and 90k square-feet (compared to Santa Fe’s 20k and Vegas’ 52k).
It’s an immersive art experience with 70+ installations, rooms and “portals”, developed with art from over 300 creatives – more than one-third of whom are based in Colorado.
As you explore the space, the level of detail and interactivity leads to an overwhelming sense of wonder; I noted this of everyone else who was in the space, as it attracted people of all ages fascinated by their surroundings.
One particular grandmother was sitting down in one of the main thoroughfares of the world; an alien city (“C-Street”, pictured in the article header) where you’re invited to explore the buildings and even vote for a local mayoral candidate. Her grandkids wanted to pull her somewhere but she responded “I want to sit here and take this all in; I’ve never seen anything like it”.
You need to experience Meow Wolf in your lifetime – this much I can tell you. But, like with Sleep No More, how you approach it is totally up to you. Do you do as this precious grandmother and sit and stare in wonderment? Do you run through the corridors blindly and discover this world? Do you arrive heavily researched and go straight for the secrets of the space? I chose to arrive blindly and take it all in; and I feel this works best. Since the visit, I’ve been reading the expansive folk lore behind the installation and learning about everything I missed, and let’s just say it’s a long and expansive list. So there’s no question I’ll be going back to discover it again.
So iconic has the Meow Wolf experience become, that there’s even a documentary about the group’s “10 year journey of an anarchic art collective into a multi-million dollar business”, with Meow Wolf: Origin Story, that screened at SXSW 2018.
Hogwarts: School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Where? Hollywood, CA and Orlando, FL
One of the most impressive attractions in America is at Universal Studios Orlando and Hollywood, where you’ll find a large scale replica of Hogwarts, from the Harry Potter series. Included in its walls is a detailed interior that has cleverly animated portraits, the sorting hat, Dumbledore’s office and climbing staircases, as you wait to ride the attraction Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. They even do nightly light and firework shows on the exterior.
Universal Orlando’s Island of Adventure has the most expansive of accompaniments to the Hogwarts attraction, with a richly detailed Hogsmeade – an immersive experience in its own right – as well as two roller coasters accompanying it, including the best outdoor story driven roller coaster ever, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure (read more about that HERE). You can also catch the train to visit Diagon Alley at the main Universal Studios Orlando park for another great (arguably even better than Forbidden Journey) attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
In Hollywood, meanwhile, you’ll find a smaller version of the overall experience, with Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, as well as the family coaster, Harry Potter and the Flight of the Hippogriff.
If you’re abroad, you can also find Hogwarts at Universal Studios in Japan – and the newly opened location in Beijing. If you want to see the original sets, you’ll need to go to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London for that (though you won’t find a ride within it here).
Mystic Seaport Museum
Where? Mystic, CT
Ever wanted to immerse yourself in a recreated 19th-century seafaring village? Well, in Mystic, CT, in New England, you can do just that. In Mystic Seaport Museum’s “Seaport Village” you’ll immerse yourself in actual buildings and ships – collected from around New England – from the 1800s. They’re not replications, they’re the real deal, showcasing the bustling maritime trades from the period, while shipsmiths, coopers, woodcarvers and riggers show you how it all worked.
And throughout the year they hold a number of events. Around Halloween time, you can do ghost tours of the museum as part of a “Jack-O-Lantern Walk” event in the evenings. In December, they turn it into the “Lantern Light Village”, an “outdoor, free-roaming experience designed to exemplify the differences between the modern and 19th century holiday seasons”, which takes place between 5pm and 8pm on select nights.
For more details about the Mystic Seaport Museum, head to their official website.
SUMMIT: One Vanderbilt
Where? New York City
I didn’t expect to include a city viewing experience on this list – especially in New York, where there are no less than five such observation decks. But there’s just nothing quite like SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, next to Grand Central Station.
Situated between the 91st and 93rd floors of the newly opened building, the experience is part city views and part art instillation, with no less than 6 sensory immersive experiences for you to enjoy throughout the 6,000 square metre attraction.
The experience starts in the lobby, where you enjoy an introductory video that’s as immersive as the experience itself, your photos are taken and face is scanned, before ascending 91 stories in record time, with an accompanying soundtrack.
The doors open, and you are greeted by a colour changing corridor as you quickly discover why you were given special sunglasses on entry – you’re about to enter the brightest room you’ve ever encountered, covered in reflective surfaces, mirrors and glass, across multiple floors (pictured above), in what is a visual feast designed for the Instagram era; immersing you both in the experience of the room itself, as well as the city itself.
There’s 2 indoor floors and impressively, 1 outdoor floor, where you can enjoy a cocktail 1,1000ft in the sky – before ascending on the aptly named “Ascent”, a glass elevator ride on the outside of the building. Along the way you’ll come across artwork by Yayoi Kusama (Clouds, pictured above), and you’ll find out why your face was scanned in the lobby in an immersive video spectacle that places you in the clouds.
It really is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.
Tickets need to be booked in advance. So for tickets and more details, head to their official website.
Cirque du Soleil’s Permanent Residencies
Where? Las Vegas & Orlando
While you may have experienced Cirque in touring form, nothing can quite prepare you for the scope of possibilities of a permanent Cirque experience. The production cranks the immersion up to 11, with acrobatics and spectacle happening all around you.
Two of my favourite shows to achieve this are The Beatles’ Love in Las Vegas (pictured above, read my review HERE), and Drawn To Life at Walt Disney World in Orlando (pictured below, read my review HERE). While the new Disney spectacular is the only US production to sit in a permanent space outside of Las Vegas, in Vegas there are multiple shows around the city – some more immersive and spectacular than others.
Whilst Love takes place in the round, and Drawn To Life in something of a semi-circle, even the Michael Jackson themed show One, which is situated in a more traditional theatre space in Vegas, sees the acrobats fly right overhead. And don’t get me started on the technical splendour offered by the underwater O. Just go and envelop yourself in the magic.
For more details on all Cirque Du Soleil shows, head to their official website.
Kusama’s Infinity Rooms
Where? Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.
We spend some time with the iconic artist Yayoi Kusama once again – an originator of the immersive art experience – this time by visiting the home of her original infinity room at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., who have been collecting Kusama’s works since 1996.
They currently have two of the Japanese artist’s iconic immersive spaces on display; her first ever infinity room from 1965, “Phalli’s Field” (pictured above, with the author of this piece), repurposed here in 2016, and one of her newest, “My Heart Is Dancing into the Universe” (2018, pictured below). Together, they sit as part of the exhibition One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection, which runs through Spring 2023.
For more details about the Kusama installations at the Hirshhorn, head HERE.
Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance
Where? Anaheim, CA and Orlando, FL
Operating on millions upon millions of lines of code, Rise of the Resistance is the most impressive dark ride I’ve ever been on. Borrowing from the innovations of rides like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt (Tokyo Disneyland, 2000) and The Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror (Orlando’s Hollywood Studios, 1994); with a little magic from the cast, and the understanding that by making the queue an experience and a story in itself – something that dates back to Haunted Mansion (Disneyland, 1969) – the guest experience is going to be enhanced, and the ability to tell a more immersive story is possible.
This experience will bring awe to even the most pessimistic of adults, as nothing to this scale has ever been produced, and you genuinely feel a part of an easy-to-follow story, and the action as you go through the ride, in a way that I’ve never seen an attraction achieve so successfully. You genuinely feel like you’re a part of the Star Wars universe, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Grand Canyon Railway
Where? Williams, Arizona
Riding the Grand Canyon Railway takes you out of Williams, Arizona, all the way to the Grand Canyon. But it’s more than a train ride; it’s a one-of-a-kind, immersive experience, designed to take you back in time. And they have the authority to do so – this is a train steeped in history (it’s been taking passengers since 1901) and the experience beams with fun for the whole family. There’s a “shoot-out” at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel before you board – as well as a few surprises along the way home (hot tip: have some dollar bills handy).
All this is accompanied by the natural landscape; enjoy the incredible views as the topography changes from flat, arid land, to the majesty of the Grand Canyon. And you’ll get to enjoy a drink and a song (or two) along the way.
Trips to and from the Canyon are timed so you can do for the afternoon, or spend a night in the accommodating on the famed Southern Rim. Even if you had a car, you’d be crazy not to jump on board for the experience. There’s no better way to get to that part of the world.
Where? Orlando, FL & Multiple locations in USA & Canada
It may feel naff to include this family attraction on this list, but honestly – there’s just something so intrinsically American about this concept restaurant, which has been a particular hit for kids’ birthday parties since it first opened in the United States in 1983, at its Orlando location. Though fun fact: the concept actually originated in Europe.
But in particular tourist centres like Orlando, home of Walt Disney World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, or Buena Park, California, not far from Disneyland, the audience range is vast both in terms of age and demographics. There are people from all over the world taking part in the often ridiculous concept, as they chow down on a plate of roast chicken and vegetables (with their bear hands). And in an age where shows like Game of Thrones are among our most popular, there’s a renewed enthusiasm in the concept. No longer a fringe idea for Middle School groups – the Medieval Times are now mainstream.
You sit, you eat, you cheer – the concept is simple enough. So what is it about the experience that makes it a must-do on a North American itinerary? At the end of the day, it’s just a lot of fun. Our knight won the show, too, which added to the festivities (and some very excited children in our surrounds), but the enthusiasm of the audience, who soak up the often corny performances (and the actual corn that’s in front of you), is what makes the concept work.
And as staged and orchestrated as the script and the performances might be, and as simple as the dinner is (though there are no complaints there), the jousting is very much real. And so are the horses. So while it’s no Cirque du Soleil, there are a few awe-inspiring moments, something which will particularly impress the younger ones, and will put a smile on the face of even the most cynical travel journalist.
And to an extent, this takes you by surprise. As you walk into the building, which been crafted to present itself as a castle, filled with merchandise and photo opps, and you adorn your paper crown, you can’t help but expect the worst. But after a couple of drinks, and a few jousts, you find yourself cheering and shouting right along with the group of ten year olds who are up way past their bed time. And with that, I can’t recommend the experience enough. But then again, I am still a ten year old at heart.
Read the full article about the experience HERE.
Medieval Times is also located in Atlanta, Buena Park (California), Dallas, Myrtle Beach (South Carolina), Toronto (Canada), Baltimore, Chicago and Lyndhurst (New Jersey). For more details, visit their official website.
All photos by the author except: Sleep No More (Supplied), Meow Wolf (Supplied), Star Wars (As Credited) and Cirque du Soleil (Supplied).