2016 created the perfect environment for a boom in a new breed of entertainment — immersive experiences. Blending different mediums to activate multiple senses and transform the audience from viewer to participant, the immersive experiences of 2016 succeeded in creating a magical escape from whatever was going on in the real world at the time.
As an experience junkie, I’ve collected a year’s worth of noteworthy immersive experiences in NYC that blur the lines between entertainment, retail, hospitality, foodservice and fitness. I saw all of these first hand. Some of them are still running, some are annual, and others may never return.
January: Sleep No More
The year began with the crowning NYC immersive experience — Sleep No More. The now well-known production by Punchdrunk is based loosely on the plot line of Macbeth. The transfixing odyssey allows participants to walk between rooms of the sprawling McKittrick Hotel to watch the plot unfold through dance. Whether you choose to follow the crowd, linger in vacant rooms, or engage directly with actors will dictate the type of experience you’ll have.
What Works: Beyond the entrancing choreography, set design, and costuming, the most pivotal aspect of the experience is the mask that each participant is made to wear. These macabre, white beaked masks shield participants from one another, encourage them to release their inhibitions, make it easier to get separated from their group, and enable them blend in more completely with their surroundings. It’s the ultimate immersive tool.
February: The Sound Bath Experience
Showcasing three of my favorite things right in the name — sounds, baths, and experiences — I had to check out this workshop hosted by Nate Martinez at Sky Ting Yoga. Described as a ‘bath of soothing sounds that take you on an inner journey of relaxation and transformation,’ sound baths are essentially assisted meditation sessions that use frequency to shift brainwaves into alpha and theta states.
What Works: For those who are seasoned meditators, the experience is probably what you’d expect. Using different combinations of instruments, Martinez leads a meditative journey and the instruments truly do contribute to a greater sense of calm. It’s important to enter in the right mindset, however, because meditating for 2 hours isn’t something you can do casually and expect musical instruments to do all of the hard work for you.
Dates: Ongoing, Weekly
It seems almost too simple. Take 100 Brooklynites and lay them on yoga mats under the arches of the Beaux Art Court in the Brooklyn Museum, add a live string quartet and narration from a soulful yogi, and you’ve got the makings for a perfect Saturday. An ongoing monthly series hosted by Flavorpill, The Art of Yoga allows participants to enter the museum before opening hours for a 1.5+ hour yoga practice to live music. Following the session, yogis can explore the sprawling museum.
What Works: By shaking the commonly-held paradigms of time, space and context for yoga, the Art of Yoga creates a more immersive and memorable experience for all participants. The choice of venue takes yogis out of the traditional enclosed studio and transplants them to an awe-inspiring open-air space. Hosting the event prior to opening hours and inviting participants to break the typical rules of a museum (i.e. laying on the ground, removing shoes) creates a sense of the forbidden that elevates the emotional experience and memory of the event.
Dates: Ongoing, Monthly
Tucked beneath the burger joint Genuine Superette, Liquorette is a tiny cocktail bar with a California vibe and an innovative beverage program. On Monday nights, master mixologist Eben Freeman leads a hands-on cocktail class that teaches participants the art of mixology including a brief history, intro to the tools, blending techniques, and various drink recipes. Graduates of the 4-hour class become certified to get behind the bar and concoct drinks for their friends whenever they return.
What Works: The Master Class perfectly blends education, interactivity and fun. It hits on the millennial attraction to activities that help build a skill or boost expertise. It creates a deeper, more lasting memory by activating all senses — not only allowing participants to taste and smell different cocktails, but also mix their own. Most importantly, the class makes participants feel like insiders, allowing them into the speakeasy on a Monday and encouraging them to invite friends into the fold later.
Dates: Monday Nights 7–11PM (Pro tip — eat beforehand)
May: Everlane Shoe Park
Upon entering Everlane’s, shoe-focused pop up, visitors are required to remove and check their footwear at the door. Barefooted visitors are then permitted to explore the almost sculptural displays of ready-to-test shoes, help themselves to juice, and take ample selfies in the well-designed, well-lit, and well-mirrored environment.
What Works: While Shoe Park is less engaging than an immersive entertainment or nightlife production, it’s a transformational departure from other shopping experiences. Simply requiring visitors to check their shoes at the door shook up the traditional shopping paradigm and invited visitors to behave more adventurously in the shopping environment. People including myself unabashedly tried on every model of shoe, helped themselves to drinks, and snapped the perfect Insta to memorialize the event and share with others.
Dates: Returns Seasonally
June: In The Mouth
Imagine eating a charred octopus tentacle or piece of filet mignon straight off a white tablecloth with only your fingers. Try a pinkie full of fois gras or a handful of gelato. At In the Mouth, a series of collective suppers in which participants can only use their hands, diners are forced to question dining conventions and explore food through texture, memory, and unexpected flavor pairings. The entire experience involves a specially curated three-course meal of decadent foods that are based upon a survey completed ahead of time by each diner.
What Works: The concept of specially curating a meal based upon the tastes and memories of the group is very powerful and increases buy-in among participants. Suspending reality and creating a set of rules for the meal — no utensils and no phones or watches present — served to further that buy-in. That buy-in only lasts as long as everyone abides by the rules, however, and when a handful of people started to sneak photos, the entire group energy became negative and envious.
Dates: To be Announced
July: The Grand Paradise
Set in a1970s tropical resort, The Grand Paradise is an immersive production from Bessie Award-winning theater company Third Rail Projects (also behind And Then She Fell). Upon arrival, participants are welcomed into the tropical paradise world with a drink and a lei and watch as the odyssey unfolds around them. Participants are whisked from room to room for group and one-on-one encounters with characters who embody the spirit of the era through spoken word, song and dance.
What Works: While the show isn’t nearly as autonomous as Sleep No More, it crafts a wonderful story arc that is fully resolved by the end and gives participants the opportunity to gain different experiences — some personal and some group. The production is especially multisensory (using essential oils, tropical drinks, song, dance, and gameplay), which further cements the experience in the memory.
Dates: Final performance is December 31, 2016
A 6AM sober dance party might sound like hell on earth for many people, but for regular attendees of Daybreaker, it is the perfect jumpstart to the day. Hosted every few weeks in cities around the world, each Daybreaker is themed and starts with an optional fitness session before morphing into a celebration of dancing, positive energy, and mischief. I’ve personally been three times and can say that the Daybreaker team consistently delivers a a morning party that enhances the entire week after.
What Works: Daybreaker isn’t for everyone, but that’s the reason that it works so well. Setting the dance party at 6AM, encouraging costumes, and serving juice instead of booze, helps to self-curate the group and ensure that everyone who attends is fully bought-in and committed to dancing their hardest.
Dates: Ongoing, Monthly
September: 29 Rooms
Described as an interactive funhouse of style, culture and technology, 29 Rooms is Refinery29’s innovative take on branded content. Installed in a Bushwick warehouse and open to the public for a weekend each year, 29 Rooms invites participants to navigate through a maze of rooms filled with themed, interactive experiences sponsored by partners such as Google, Perrier, and Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way Foundation.’
What Works: Designing rooms that celebrate human individuality and enabling participants to help shape the event for others via their own contributed content, means that 29 Rooms is destined to engage and delight. Beyond that, it taps into the ADD of the modern consumer with 29 different experiences to uncover. The event provides participants with artifacts of their visit — mostly photos — so they can share and remember their experience long after.
Dates: Returns Annually
October: Hall Pass
At Hall Pass, an immersive musical set and performed in a NYC school, participants can choose their own schedule and relive the trials of high school as they follow actors through bathrooms and classrooms, discovering the challenges and victories they face. While conceptually, a High School musical runs the risk of being cheesy, Hall Pass is refreshingly honest, well written, and artfully performed.
What Works: Through its choose-your-own-schedule approach, Hall Pass empowers the audience to navigate the school like a real student and seek out the next song or spoken word act that they wish to see. Using a real school as the scenery and real high schoolers as actors, Hall Pass uses natural elements to immerse the audience more deeply in the experience. It truly makes you forget you graduated years ago.
Dates: Returns Annually
November: Pip’s Island
Nothing has made me wish I was 5-years-old again more than Pips Island. This immersive adventure experience designed specifically for kids brings ‘explorers’ on an hour long mission to bring order and light to the Island. Guided by zany live characters, delightful interactive sets, and storytelling enhanced by projected animations, children must capture 5 ‘sparks’ (Investigate, Build, Activate, Imagine, Connect) through different interactive tasks throughout the journey.
What Works: Pip’s Island strikes the perfect balance between a fun game and educational experience. The plot of the adventure places the children front and center as the main characters — they are required to participate and engage in order for the plot to advance. The sets themselves feel dreamlike. Each room introduces a completely new environment, creating momentum and anticipation for what comes next.
Dates: Limited Time, November 12 — January 8
December: Supercinema at the McKittrick Hotel
Hosted and produced by the team behind Sleep No More, Supercinema is a monthly dance party based upon a cult classic film. Past Supercinema themes have included Clue, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby, Wizard of Oz, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. The experience allows participants to navigate between party rooms including a massive dance floor, a more intimate live performance space, a lip sync battle room and more. The event is open bar and a themed dress code is strictly enforced.
What Works: The mandatory costume is a key ingredient of Supercinema events. At the moment of ticket purchase, participants must select the character they wish to embody and plan their dress in advance. Not only do costumes help to suspend reality and contribute to a magical environment, but requiring participants to select their costume in advance forces a commitment. From the moment of purchase onward, they are bought in.
Dates: Ongoing, Monthly