Department of Wonder mushroom

Department of Wonder

  • 1st place

Project creator(s)

Entered into the following categories


  • First place, Storytelling

In October 2022, Department of Wonder opened its doors to sold out audiences in Sugar Land, Texas, inviting visitors to step through a portal into an immersive fantasy of exploration and discovery.

Department of Wonder logo

Department of Wonder – equal parts immersive theater, arcade, art gallery, and theme park – is a 10,000 square-foot venue that stages an immersive, mixed-reality fantasy filled with intrigue and surprise.

Guests are charged with gathering light amidst the darkness by unraveling stories and solving puzzles within a fantastical universe of remarkable interactive experiences and curiously colorful characters. Adults and kids alike have been captivated by this enchanting and whimsical journey where curiosity is constantly rewarded inside a realm where the boundaries between physical and digital reality dissolve.

Upon stepping off the street, guests find themselves in the Lamp Maker’s Emporium, a curiosities shop that feels as if it were from another time. Pheris, an enigmatic inventor and the Lamp Maker himself, greets guests in the shop. Learning that they have arrived for an adventure rather than to shop, his tone shifts and he begins to prepare guests for the journey ahead. He equips each guest with a light-gathering lantern, a magical device created by the Lamp Maker, which serves as their connection to the magic of the realm, then he ushers everyone into the back of his shop.

Using a mix of lighting cues and projection mapping, our actor tells the story of a land he and his brother discovered long ago; how he met the love of his life there and began to understand that whatever light there is in our world originated there in Airioch.

The Lamp Maker gives guests a charge to explore and gather light because our world is in dire need and time is short, then thrusts them through a portal to the adventure that awaits. Guests are free to roam at will and able to unlock interactive experiences. They encounter several characters, some human, some digital, and one grumpy puppet swamp frog. Some of the characters are earnest in service of the light, some have been seduced by the darkness and would love nothing more than for guests to join them.

Department of Wonder tunnel

A path is laid out before guests to explore, gather light, and return it to the great tree. However, there are many forks in the road and guests must chart their own way. They may choose to help out the local Pixies who live in the forest. Others may seek to solve puzzles, unlocking interesting artifacts. And yet others may be drawn in by the darkness, seek out the Door Beyond Doors, and discover the shipwreck coming face-to-face with the countervailing force of the realm. Each of these choices impact the guest journey and their experience.

DoW has been built as an evolving platform. The quests available to audiences, the games and puzzles, the arcs of the characters living in the space, and the physical space itself will all evolve in the future as the story unfolds and more layers are revealed.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration of our submission. We at the Department of Wonder are all big fans of all of the emerging location based entertainment concepts, and look forward to learning about the other innovations submitted in this category!

Department of Wonder was created by an acclaimed team of story-tellers, technologists, designers and producers with decades of collective experience producing novel forms of digital and interactive entertainment. The distinguished team includes Academy Award-winning director Brandon Oldenburg, Emmy Award-winning director Limbert Fabian, Kyle Clark, Taylor Williams, and Rickey Crum.

Our goal was to take our deep background in storytelling through animated films and combine it with our more recent history creating pop-up innovative gaming experiences for clients at events such as the Super Bowl and Comic-Con and festivals such as SXSW and Cannes. We dreamed of having a permanent place where we could leverage our interesting interactive spectacles to tell stories. That dream came true when the opportunity arose to take over a 10,000 square foot former furniture retail space in Sugar Land, TX.

Inside of DoW, we leverage a mix of artful physical building and technologies such as projection mapping, holograms (both classic peppers’ ghost, and light field), embedded screens, and light and sound installations to immerse audiences within the fantastical world of Arioch. The characters of the realm take the form of human characters, projected and holographic animated pixies, and one grumpy swamp frog of a puppet named Mog.

This cycle for the guest has been carefully plotted to mirror Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model. We’ve carefully considered the path that guests take through the venue, bookending the experience with a series of three thresholds that usher guests into and out of the fantasy world. The opening set of thresholds gradually removes guests from the real world, with each crossing removing a bit more reality and bringing in a bit more fantasy.

Department of Wonder magic

The first threshold is the door from the street into the lantern shop. Inside the lantern shop, guests are in a space that feels out of time, but not necessarily in another world. Then, crossing the second threshold, guests enter the Story Tent where a bit more magic gets deployed.

Their lanterns are ignited for the first time, and the Lamp Maker establishes the prologue for the adventure guests are embarking upon. Then, the Lamp Maker fires up his portal, the third opening threshold, sending guests through an opening of compressed light and sound, emerging into the magical forest of Arioch.

Inside of Arioch, guests are first given their quest: collect as much light as they can, and return it to the great tree when the goddess of the realm, Noria, calls to you. Along the way, they are presented with several opportunities to deviate from that path. While those deviations are expected and lead to interesting discoveries, they also impact how the characters in the realm relate to the audience and the ending that the audience receives for their narrative arc.

In order to facilitate guests’ unique paths along their own story arcs, we’ve developed a peripheral that guests carry throughout their journey – the lantern. The lantern is a custom designed bit of hardware that communicates with the server and all of the games, and provides feedback to the guest through different colors. The initial role of the lantern is to keep track of each guest’s time and progress/score. For the first 20 minutes of a guest’s time in the forest, the lantern slightly changes color each 5 minutes, to signal to the castmembers that a guest is ealy in their arc and to only deploy narrative beats appropriate for that time. When guests place their lantern on glowing rings throughout the forest, they trigger different reactions.

Department of Wonder magic

Unlocking games and puzzles as opportunities for guests to collect light. When guests are successful in light collection, their lanterns flash with recognition of the light being added. And when guests are lured in by side quests, their lanterns are affected, changing colors to signify that their light has been altered, and they can now unlock doors that were previously closed. At the end of their time in the realm, Noria calls each group of guests by causing their lanterns to flash a new sequence of rainbow light, which is echoed by changes in the light throughout the entirety of the venue, and signaling to the castmembers in the space to be on the lookout for guests with a flashing lantern.

Gathering at the door to the great tree, guests then pass the first threshold for their return to reality entering the tree itself. The tree performance echoes the Story Tent. Guests are praised or admonished for the choices they made in their time in Arioch, as the light that they have gathered is returned to the tree. Then guests pass the 2nd threshold, an elongated glowing portal with the organic shapes of the forest gradually dissolving into the geometric shapes of the gift shop. The gift shop is designed to echo the Lamp Makers Emporium where guests started their journey, much closer to reality, but still a little off. Guests finally exit the gift shop, returning to the world outside.

Our hope is that groups of friends will then congregate at a restaurant or bar in the complex to give each other a postgame report of what they found, discovering that each guest’s experience was unique and hopefully want to come back to see where other decisions might have led them.

Our ambition for the future is to take the foundation that we’ve established and have the stories told in the venue evolve on regular intervals, like books in a series or seasons of a television program. In the version of the show now, one of the characters that guests meet is the Lamp Maker’s son, separated from his mother and father by forces that he doesn’t understand. We hear about the Lamp Maker’s brother, lost in the storm that preceded the events of today, and encounter signs of his gradual descent into madness in the space. We intend to unpack those stories in greater detail in the coming months and years, and look forward to seeing where the Department of Wonder will take all of us!

Thank you again.

More information can be found here.

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