The Meow Wolf Effect: Why Immersive Experiences Matter

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Thanks to the explosion in popularity of Meow Wolf, more people are realizing how fun it is to surround yourself in another world. Image: Rick Tate

From Rolling Stone Magazine to the Travel Channel, everyone seems to want to be the one who has discovered the magic of the art collective known as Meow Wolf.

I can’t say I blame them. When you come across an experience so over-the-top-clever, so utterly original, and unapologetically fun, you want to be part of it.

I’m also prone to talk about how “I loved Meow Wolf before Meow Wolf was cool,” when I first saw the embryo of several of their ideas back in 2011 at the small but impressive “Glitteropolis” exhibit in Las Cruces, N.M. Still, they were doing stuff as far back as 2008 before I heard about them, with their eerily mesmerizing immersive installation, “Horror.”

Today, Meow Wolf’s first permanent exhibit, “House of Eternal Return,” is Santa Fe’s number one attraction, and they have made the phrase “Immersive Experience” very familiar to travelers and art lovers of all ages.

When the exhibit opened in 2015, it was promoted as “a unique art experience featuring an astonishing new form of non-linear storytelling that unfolds through exploration, discovery and 21st-century interactivity.” We were able to visit it in 2017, and it was an amazing experience for everyone.

They weren’t done yet.

Since we visited, Meow Wolf has exploded—well, actually, more like “Super Nova-ed”—into several more worlds, projects, and experiences. These include:

  • Adding at least four new environments, including a new secret passageway to its House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe.
  • Creating an online store with extensive artist-designed merchandise, as well as an exhibition catalog and exhibit music soundtracks.
  • Hosting an outside Scavenger Hunt at the 2018 SXSW (South by Southwest) festival in Austin.
  • Seeing the release of an award-winning documentary film, Meow Wolf: Origin Story.
  • Opening their second permanent exhibit, AREA 15, later this year just a short distance from the Vegas Strip in Las Vegas.
  • Working on two immersive experiences in Denver, including the “Kaleidoscape” artist-driven dark ride at Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park and their third permanent experience opening in 2020.  “Kaleidoscape,” by the way, made USA Today‘s list on a story of “2019’s most anticipated thrill rides and theme park attractions.”
  • Announcing its latest location for a new immersive experience, Washington D.C. tentatively set for a 2022 completion.

That is one big crate full of craziness packed into just a few years, and now they are getting ready to renovate their Santa Fe site.

For many, Meow Wolf’s success is a triumph of the artistic mind and how people of various talents and backgrounds can come together with the goal of creating something that has never been done before, as well as showing there’s a place for everyone in the creative world. This is true.

For me, Meow Wolf confirmed three things I believe everyone wants, regardless of background, politics, beliefs, or hometown. People want to explore. People want to be told a good story. People want to be in the middle of an experience.

Look up! Listen! Explore! Touch! That’s the beauty of Meow Wolf and other immersive experiences. Images: Rick Tate

Even before Meow Wolf got everyone talking about “immersive environments,” I loved them. They served for me as educational tools, escapism and entertainment, creative inspiration, and even physical fitness opportunities.

Sometimes, these areas are often associated with site-specific “installation art,” although not all installations are immersive. The immersive environment can turn visitors into “participants” in the world, as Meow Wolf has said of their experiences. Sometimes, this experience can be serene and colorful, or it can be off-putting, dark, and claustrophobic. All of these experiences take us outside ourselves for a moment and can take full advantage of all our senses.

In simple terms, immersive experiences are all about one of my favorite things in the world: imagination!

I grew up wanting to surround myself in the new worlds of fun. Thankfully, my dad loved reading and telling stories, and my mom was wildly creative. I built forts out of sheets that turned one room into a whole house just for me or my bed into an airplane or space ship. Don’t forget those knee and head bonking rocket ships or Cinderella coaches on the playground. You’re not only climbing around on these things, you’re writing your own fairy tale or science fiction epic.

From immersive exhibits at street festivals to aquariums to mirror mazes, our family has loved to be completely immersed in an experience. Images: Rick and Lisa Tate

Zoos and aquariums that are well run know the value of immersive experiences to make people realize the importance of protecting wildlife and nature. I recently talked to the directors of some local zoos, who all mentioned their walkthrough aviaries as a zoo highlight. It’s one thing to look over a fence or wall at an animal from a safe distance, no matter how big or beautiful its enclosure is. We want to wander amid the flora and fauna flying around us, under trees, and over little bridges. We want to walk through tunnels with sharks swimming around us, or take a winding labyrinth through hedges and vines. That’s when just a trip to a nature park becomes a full-on safari, giving you the feeling you’re about to discover a new species. When you get to pet or feed the animals, that’s the memory your kids will hold onto for years, and you will appreciate the need to care for that species.

Also, there’s the theme park appeal. As much as I enjoy the roller coasters and other standards, I like to get into the dark rides like Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean or walk through entire environments set up to take you to another world or time. You might roll your eyes at my enjoyment of those “over-crowded” tourist traps, but The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and forthcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are on my “need to visit” lists precisely for the immersive worlds they create.

Even those cheesy family restaurants like the Rainforest Café may seem silly, but there’s a reason these dining experiences that take your family into another world are so popular.

Finally, there’s that need to touch things. I think anyone who says they’ve outgrown that urge is some serious self-denial. While some visitors to galleries or parks display their “Do Not Touch” or “Keep Off” signs, a good immersive experience invites you to pick up and read items, turn cranks, push buttons, climb up on that statue, and slide down that chute. An experience of Meow Wolf will not only leave you emotionally stimulated, and creatively inspired, but also physically exhausted, in a good way.

This “please touch” invitation is also one of the reasons Escape Rooms are popping up everywhere as well. Movies are fun, but actually being part of the mystery where you can become a character and explore the surroundings is pure escapist joy.

I could go and list haunted mazes, VR tours, pop-up environments at comic conventions, arboretums, Renaissance faires, and more, all of which draw people who want to do more than just “look at” something.

Now that Meow Wolf has “put it out there” that immersive experiences are also a viable and living art form, I look forward to seeing what they and other art collectives have to offer. Oklahoma City’s Factory Obscura is just one of the other collectives out there that comes to mind for doing wonderful things in the art form.

Meow Wolf may not have originally invented the concept of immersive artistic environments, but they are the ones who have lit the psychedelic, Technicolor fuse under it and set it off in orbit to places where we have never seen before.

Immersive experiences are nothing new, but thanks to the imagination and hard work of the Meow Wolf artists, we have discovered just how much we have always loved them.

Immersive environments such as Meow Wolf don’t just encourage you to walk through them, but to stay awhile and be part of it. Image: Rick Tate
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