Lessons From SXSWestworld - Part One

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For three days in March, the future of themed entertainment sat forty minutes outside of Austin, Texas. Populated with drunks, criminals, law enforcement, prostitutes and preachers, this destination was the location for affluent individuals who paid handsomely for an experience unlike anything else in the world. Every desire was at their fingertips. The setting was elaborate and pleasant, but it refused to keep its secrets buried. 

While the setting was far from kid-friendly, this immersive activation experience of the HBO series “Westworld” provided ideas and a glimpse at what a visit to a theme park may look like shortly. During the popular South By Southwest Conference, the fictional setting of the show, Sweetwater, came to life. The town was populated with residents — or hosts, as they are known in the the show — who chatted, drank, argued and teased guests. The Westworld immersive activation was set up as a promotion for the show’s upcoming second season. While the activation only ran for three days, its impact on visitors and themed entertainment will last much longer. 

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As a themed entertainment writer and fan of the show, I was lucky enough to grab a ticket to this experience. With limited experience in immersive experiences — I’d love to see Sleep No More and participate in Secret Cinema — I approached this adventure with curiously and excitement. I returned ecstatic from its possibilities, hungry to be involved in creating one and full of thoughts on how to scale this experience for a larger audience.  

Immersion is this idea of dropping guests into a living experience where everything — sights, sounds, tastes — is tied to a single story and they cannot experience the outside world. Take Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida — a singular experience inside the world of Harry Potter. You won’t find theme park food staples such as Coke or pizza — only world-appropriate Butterbeer and English dishes. You can chat with wizards who will gladly help you use your new wand. Perhaps Diagon Alley's greatest trick is that once you step inside, you can't see other parts of Universal Studios. The tall buildings create a berm that completes the feeling of immersion.  

The success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter rubbed off on Disney’s Pandora — The World of AVATAR — another highly immersive land. Disney has already announced an immersive Star Wars-themed hotel that will connect to the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Theme parks are all in on immersion. 

This is the first of three posts about my experience at the Westworld immersive activation. The first two posts will focus on what I noticed during my time and how those things may be applied in themed entertainment. My third post will focus on the few things that I felt Westworld didn't deliver. Knowing that this was only a three day experience, there were bound to be things that didn't make it into the final experience. The missing pieces did not prevent me from fully enjoying my time. In a few years, I'm sure that some of the missing elements I point out will be part of immersive themed entertainment settings. 

Before we start rolling, I want to send my appreciation to the actors, designers, construction crew, production crew, costumiers, make-up artists, medics, bus drivers, security officers, hosts/hostesses and anyone that was involved in the Austin experience. You created a special event that I will never forget. Also, kudos to anyone from HBO, Giant Spoon and Mycotoo that may read these words. I thank you for your creativity, hard work and passion. You have inspired me to do great things with immersive experiences in themed entertainment. 

LESSONS FROM SXSWESTWORLD 

1 ) GO ALL IN ON AUTHENTICITY

A successful fictional experience that engages and (violently) delights must be believable. In order for us to suspend our disbelief, we need to see our experience as a real one. For Westworld, that experience began with the most familiar icons - a western town. The authentic buildings of the J. Lorraine Ghost Town were given a Westworld makeover — adding in show specific locations the Mariposa and the Coronado. The hosts were decked out in period-appropriate attire that featured the right amount of aging and wear — selling the idea that Sweetwater existed before you arrived. 

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While sets and costumes are vital components of authenticity, it was the MA-rated actions of the experience that sealed the deal. In Sweetwater, I downed tequila, witnessed a shooting, was told to (politely) f*uck off by the town sheriff and had a Mariposa prostitute suggestively slide her heeled boot across my lap.** YAY IMMERSION.  

These MA-rated actions mirrored the MA-rated setting of the show. This complete authenticity to the world of Westworld was critical to the believability of the experience. Imagine a PG-rated experience that was devoid of booze or violence and the prostitutes flirted without sexual innuendo. It would have sucked. We would have spent our time muttering “I wish they would have gone for it.”   

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Successful immersion demands authenticity — not just the buildings and costumes, but a fierce commitment to the tone of the source material. While the majority of theme park immersive experiences will be family-friendly, it’s vital to give guests the authentic version of the world they see on the screen or read on the page. Your scares should be just as frightening. Your characters must be as friendly or as devious as their source material counterparts. 

** I’m now Instagram-buddies with Adrienne Whitney Papp, the actor that portrayed the Mariposa prostitute, so it’s all good.  


2 ) INITIATE COMMUNICATON AND DISCOVERY 

When we enter an immersive space — such as Hogsmeade at Universal Studios Hollywood or Pandora — The World of AVATAR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom —  we are invited to see, watch, ride and observe. Outside of the attractions, shops and restaurants, we enter a passive place. We receive no specific call to action that invites us to look closer or search for clues. 

The Westworld immersive activation was not a place for the passive. While many people seemed thrilled to sip drinks and listen to the bands, Sweetwater invited YOU to discover its secrets. 

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Westworld visitors were invited to explore the secrets that were buried throughout the town. On the bus trip to the location, guests received a small brochure. Copy on the leaflet invited you to stop by the post office to see if you had a letter waiting for you. Upon opening your letter — your name written on the envelope — you read a cryptic note from a stranger. Different letters awaited different people. My particular one alluded to a mysterious door with numbers. Thanks to the internet, I had indirectly uncovered the mystery contained in my letter. Bummer. 

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Another invitation required some deep digging. Really. Inside the graveyard, guests found the town preacher tending to the excavated grave of Dolores Abernathy - the show’s main character. The preacher hinted that clues to her disappearance might be found if you dig for them. Colin — my Westworld pal — grabbed a shovel and started shoveling. After a few minutes of digging, Colin hit pay dirt. His efforts uncovered a canvas with a half-completed painting of a landscape and horse. Who was this horse? Who painted this? The plot thickened by an activation. 

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For a large theme park filled with guests, it may be impractical to send each one a personal letter — imagine the lines just for the post office. That doesn’t make invitations to communication impractical for a theme park. What do guests have on them that can start a discovery? A MagicBand, park ticket or cell phone can be a solution, as long as it’s world-appropriate. The wand selection experience in the Wizarding World is an initiation and pays off with a device that leads to discovery — if you purchase it, of course. 

Delivering guests into discovery can be as elaborate as a personalized letter, or as low tech as a character approaching a guest with a “Psst… want to know a secret?” greeting. Whatever the method, inviting guests to explore story and setting is a powerful way to engage them. 

3) RESET THE EXPERIENCE

“Back to one” is a familiar phrase in the worlds of theater and film. It’s a signal to go back to a particular point and begin again. It’s a fresh take. The Westworld experience at SXSW featured a full-cast on-stage “back to one” moment in full view of the guests. 

Behind the scenes, the overall narrative of the Westworld experience was a 90-minute arc. At the end of that arc, the entire “show” reset to the beginning. Guests visiting Westworld were told to plan for a two-hour visit to Sweetwater. Logistically, this was two 15-minute bus rides and a 90-minute narrative. With arrival times spread through the day, it was possible for people to arrive at the “start” and leave after the “reset” point. This on-stage reset had a great character payoff — the bartender you met just 10 minutes before the reset would have no clue who you were 10 minutes after the reset. 

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A reset experience takes some of the pressure off the guests to understand and catch everything. If they didn’t get it the first time around — or they want to ask a different question — this gives them a chance. In many ways, Westworld was a living “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Made the wrong choice? Start over. 

A reset allows guests to play on a level playing field. I read that Disneyland’s Legends of Frontierland game suffered when guests were allowed to keep coins and continue the experience over many days. A new guest may feel left behind or intimidated by the pro player. Once Disney decided to have Legends of Frontierland reset every day, it opened up much more fun and interaction. 

Resetting an immersive experience gives guests closure. Loose ends are tied up. Theme parks are a world of stories. All stories end. Having a defined ending point — every few hours or at the end of the operation day — allows the curtain to fall and give people a full performance. 

Video of the SXSWestorld reset. Video taken by Colin Higgins.


4) PICK A SIDE

In the show, visitors to Westworld have a choice of two hats — white or black. This choice plays off the “Good guys wear white/bad guys wear black” trope found in the genre of Western films. The hat color becomes symbolic of your intentions, as well as giving people an easy way to identify yourself from afar. True to the show, visitors to the Westworld immersive activation were given a white or black hat to wear during the experience. 

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Let's swap cowboy hats for brooms for a second. The symbolic colored hats are reminiscent of the houses of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Fans of the series have chosen to identify with one of the houses — Griffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. At The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, fans adorn themselves in ties, scarves and robes that flow with the color of their houses. Even in social situations — your house affiliation can be a way to quickly classify yourself and your traits to a stranger. “I’m Roby and I’m a Slythern” is the new “I’m Roby and I’m a Virgo.”

The Westworld hats were a great way to participate in the show's narrative, as well as serve as a memorable keepsake. The one thing that I didn’t consider or explore is how the hosts reacted to the hat color you chose. Was the sheriff kinder to the white hats and suspicious of the black hats? Was a white hat chatting with the owner of the Coronado more likely to get a clue over a black hat? My companion was also a black hat, so we did not have the opportunity to try asking in another way. I’m going to wonder about those possibilities for a while. 

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Allowing activation that depends on an item the guest is wearing unlocks many avenues for personalization and varied experiences. You could even vary the reactions on different days. For Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a Bounty Hunter could act favorably to a First Order Sympathizer on one day, but shun them the next. Having visible sides even allows for fun teasing. On my most recent visit to Hogsmeade, a village wizard called out my Slytherin robe and teased my team’s lackluster Quidditch House Cup record. It’s a small thing, but a small touch of personalization will make memories that last for years.  


Check back here tomorrow for part two, where I’ll relay four more Lessons from SXSWestworld. Were you able to experience at SXSW? How was your visit to Sweetwater? Did you uncover any secrets? Let me know in the comments below!