NEW YORK — Cold mist sprays from a fireboat, a subway train hurtles closer through a tunnel, the night sky crackles with fireworks, and the inviting scent of fresh-made popcorn wafts from pushcarts as a festive Times Square swoops past below.
It’s all part of a new, multi-sensory thrill ride in a high-tech theater where guests “experience” New York from seats lifted three stories into the air as 8K aerial footage projected across a 180-degree, 40-foot domed screen makes them feel like they’re flying.
The real Times Square, with its sometimes less inviting smells, is just a few feet away. But RiseNY, which opened in March in a former Toys “R” Us on West 45th Street just off Broadway, is capitalizing on travelers’ cravings for immersive experiences that are inspiring new kinds of attractions and transforming everything from hotels to museums.
“People don’t want to just look at things. They want to feel a part of it,” said Dave Collins, RiseNY’s Natick-born co-creator and producer, as tourists jostled to take selfies on a gray-scale reproduction of the “Honeymooners” set, the couch from “Friends,” the stage of a late-night TV talk show, and other Instagram-able iconic New York scenes.
All of travel is immersive, of course. Much of it is also interactive, from luaus to petting zoos, Renaissance fairs to theme parks, escape rooms to historic re-creations such as Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village.
Now technology is taking this idea to new extremes, driven by intensifying competition for leisure dollars and increasing expectations among travelers who want to do more than gaze at artworks on a wall or look from the outside at historic landmarks.
“It’s really about reality plus,” said Joseph Michelli, a consumer psychologist, author, speaker, and consultant.
“For those of us who are digital aliens, a lot of this could be viewed as overkill. Why isn’t it enough to just have the experience?” Michelli said. “But especially for kids who have been raised on a lot of this technology, the reality is no longer enough.”
Now visitors to Graceland can be “serenaded” by Elvis Presley on the set of “Blue Hawaii” in virtual reality, “dress” like him from a rack of 3-D outfits on a mirrored screen, and drive his custom-designed golf cart around the grounds in a 360-degree simulator.
At the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, they can take on the role of crewmembers of the submarine USS Tang and experience in 4-D a real battle that took place in the Pacific in 1944, with authentic movements, noises, flashing lights, fog effects, and the grim fate of perishing at sea or surviving only to be taken into Japanese captivity.
The National Blues Museum in St. Louis encourages visitors to write their own lyrics, then step into the Jack White “Mix It Up” sound booth to add guitar, harmonica, and piano tracks, and record their music to take home.
Then there are the various Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo immersive experiences, and the Dopamine Lands museums in London and Madrid, which use technology to submerge their guests in multi-sensory simulations that include a giant popcorn machine. A new hotel chain called Roomza will have real rooms but virtual lobbies and lounges, where avatars of the people who have checked in can meet and get acquainted.
And the newly opened Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World launches superfans in tunics and armed with lightsabers into “space” for two days and nights of role-play during which they (spoiler alert) save the galaxy.
“What research tells us, and our guests tell us, is that being immersed in a new experience actually makes more memories,” said Sara Thacher, a Disney imagineer and interactivity director for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. “You’re doing something that transports you to another world, and doing it with people that you care about. And you’re more actively engaged with your surroundings than when you do the same things day in and day out.”
That’s particularly appealing now, said Michelli, whose clients include Airbnb and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.
“We’ve been limited within the walls of our own environment and want to escape beyond that,” he said. “We don’t want to be confined to another four-walls type of experience. We want to live inside the story.”
The unremitting hunger for unique social-media content is also driving some of this.
“Guests love the ability to do an Instagram photo” of themselves in one of Elvis’s distinctive jumpsuits or his leather jacket, said Angie Marchese, vice president of archives and exhibitions for the company that oversees Graceland.
Immersive technology is among the ways attractions are vying to capture the attention of freshly liberated travelers.
“They’re fighting for dollars and they’ve got to differentiate and push the boundaries,” said Dave Green, “chief mysterious officer” of the company Mystery Trip, which takes groups to interactive team-building events in locations kept secret until they get there. Guests end up in places including the studio where “We Are the World” was recorded, to re-create the performance themselves.
By comparison, Green said, “being a passive observer really brings no joy. It’s like watching TV.”
Like Mystery Trip’s, some interactive experiences are comparatively low-tech.
Rent a luxury home in London through the company onefinestay and you can book add-ons based on the Netflix series “Bridgerton,” including a visit to the Reform Club, where Viscount Bridgerton and the Duke of Hastings hung out, or a classic English picnic in Painshill Park. The National Aviary in Pittsburgh offers twice-a-day in-person get-togethers with African penguins.
Art museums, which are trying to lure visitors back, are adding scavenger hunts, live theater, and other interactive events. A new art gallery called Hopscotch San Antonio specializes in interactive works, including an installation called “Ball Pit,” into which visitors can jump, and a retro telephone booth in which they can share their secrets.
Museums are “trying to pull in groups of people who wouldn’t have been pulled in before,” said Evan Levy, a former coordinator of children’s events at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and now owner of fable & lark, which gives “mystery tours” of the museum with clues found in the art.
“It especially speaks to kids who enjoy that kind of interactivity and who increasingly are used to it,” Levy said. “This is a generation of kids who grew up with video games and interactive this and that. This is a logical extension and a good way to reach them.”
Not everyone is a fan.
“There is an ease, there is a richness to the experiences. There are many senses involved. The part that’s wholly lacking is authenticity,” said Frédéric Brunel, a professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who noted the irony of offering a 4-D simulated version of New York only steps from the real New York.
“It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s often quite effortless,” Brunel said. “It’s pre-packaged. It’s pre-chewed for you. And the need for control in an uncertain world is what people want.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.