The future of theme parks might just be in a Salt Lake City suburb called Pleasant Grove. This is where you will find Evermore Park, where one of its star attractions is not a state-of-the-art coaster nor a thrill ride populated with scenes from a recent superhero movie.
Instead, it is a tavern called the Crooked Lantern.
To get to the Crooked Lantern, one of the oddest and liveliest bars west of the Mississippi, you must dodge the druids near the town border, walk past the aviary without being distracted by the woman with a baby dragon, and hang a left at the gaggle of buzzing faeries.
They’ll want to chat — faeries are a chipper lot — but it’s best to get inside the pub’s doors before one gets led astray. Faeries lie. Everyone here seems to know that, especially the ghosts. And everyone is welcome.
This is evident by the troll-like figure awaiting a chess player in the corner. That’s not an insult — he may very well be a troll, the sort who lives under a mystical bridge rather than the more modern breed found on social media.
Whether you are a regular or entering the Crooked Lantern for the first time, expect to receive a friendly and loud greeting, likely from bartender Suds McBride. Crowds are attracted to Suds, who walks atop the bar and likes to tell guests about the time he was swallowed whole by a fish — the 4- or 5-foot monster that lies dead, intestines out, in the back of the bar.
On this particular Friday night, Suds had an announcement to make: “My tavern is not for getting drunk and forgetting everything,” he shouted. “My tavern is a place for good memories!”
Just don’t tell that to the hunters — they’re the stoic ones in all-black, ready to warn you of your impending doom.
Your journey through Evermore, where the emphasis is on play and human interaction, has only just begun.
Imagine a renaissance fair, if it consisted of permanent buildings built across a dozen acres and possessed a Disneyland-like attention to detail.
Or a game of "Dungeons & Dragons," only there are no dice and maps.
Or picture walking down Disney’s Main Street U.S.A., but instead of Mickey Mouse posing for photo ops, he asks for help finding Minnie and suggests that you go talk to Goofy — but to talk to Goofy, you first must discover a way to earn his trust.
To set foot in Evermore, a quirky old-English town with crooked roads, dizzying catacombs, and a bustling population of fantastical creatures, is to not just enter a theater but to become one of its central characters. There are no rides — at least not yet. Instead, there are game-like quests to seek out and lots of role play to engage in.
It’s the sort of alternate reality envisioned by video games and teased — or warned — by TV’s Westworld, and it’s going to forever change how we view theme parks.
That’s because the tenets at the core of Evermore are already reverberating across the theme park industry. Evermore taps into a hunger for non-screen-based, experience-focused entertainment, and it arrives at a time when escape rooms continue to dot the country and we’re seeing a rise in interactive theater, such as the site-specific production Sleep No More, which helped spawn an immersive entertainment movement.
For the past three summers, Knott’s Berry Farm near Anaheim, Calif., has transformed its Old West area into Ghost Town Alive!, which follows a loose story centered on the drama in the mining town of Calico, where one can avoid shootouts, partake in gambling, or even create a newspaper. "Connecting with other people" is how a Knott’s Berry executive described it.
Then there’s Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, N.M., which transformed a bowling alley into the House of Eternal Ruin, an art gallery-turned-indoor theme park where one can step into a fridge and enter a universe akin to Alice in Wonderland to uncover a mystery worthy of the X-Files. Meow Wolf is expanding to Denver, Las Vegas, and Washington.
In downtown Los Angeles there’s the recently opened Two Bit Circus, where beyond tech-savvy carnival games lie story rooms such as Space Squad in Space, in which you play the role of an intergalactic peacemaker.
"The classic amusement park experience is relatively passive," says Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell. "You have some active participation, but at the end of the day you sit in a seat and you’re entertained. With immersive theater, the moment you are one-on-one with an actor under a staircase — and you were the only one pulled into that space and they are responding to what you do — that hasn’t happened before.
"That’s powerful," he continues. "All of a sudden you have been recognized. They called you by your name. That is awesome. Yes, I love theme parks, but the moment you have that magical experience, entertainment has been changed for you."
Evermore is the dream of Ken Bretschneider, a tech-industry innovator who co-founded the virtual reality company The Void. While it was Disneyland that shaped how Bretschneider viewed entertainment, it was Halloween parties that inspired Evermore.
"Every year I’ve done a big Halloween experience at my house," Bretschneider says inside Evermore’s Crooked Lantern, sitting at the long, wooden communal table an hour after park closing at 1 a.m. Suds is gone, and there is nary a sign of a goblin or a cynical hunter, the latter a woman who sized up wannabe heroes with a scoff, "That was the crux of me wanting to do this thing."
Mermaids swam in his backward pool, and projections indicated dueling pirates behind impossible-to-reach rooms.
Utah papers covered the parties, for which the public was invited, as if they were amusement parks, writing of pianos played by animatronic skeletons and illusions of heads floating in vases. Bretschneider estimates that his 2013 party drew 11,000 people to his home.
"Everyone — literally everyone who came through — said, ’This is better than Disneyland.’ Now, how can anyone think my house is better than Disneyland? I mean, I love Disneyland and I have a very positive opinion of Disneyland. But I started thinking about that, and I could see that for one night, this was better."
His home, reasons Bretschneider, was not just more intimate but "more immersive. There was more detail. That’s what made it more exciting for people for that one night. So I said, ’What if I open up a place that can be more exciting ... for a whole bunch of nights?’ "
Evermore is far from completion, but Bretschneider opened the park for October to let guests take part in a Halloween-themed narrative that shifted not just nightly but hourly. Through Jan. 2, Evermore has a daylight Wonderland Walk and an evening World of Aurora scheduled.
Still to come is a massive structure that can serve as a castle or haunted palace, depending on the need, filled with hidden passages and secret stairwells.
Guests who actively sought out Evermore’s myths and storylines this fall learned of a plague that was inflicting the town — those infected had roots and tree bark growing out of their skin. Guests could align with various guilds — the battle-scarred hunters, for instance, or the Fae King, a towering animatronic puppet that pledged protection to those who kneeled before him.
The shy could simply enjoy the park’s entertainment — folksy bands, fire wielders, fortune tellers, or archery ranges. But all of that also is intertwined into Evermore’s story.
You could spend a night learning about the ways of the hunters, but for them to open up to you, it helps to prove you have skill with a bow. If you pass that test, they may send you deep into the crypts — in a cemetery filled with very-real antique gravestones purchased in Europe — to retrieve a requested item, which in turn could lead you to a witch’s house.
Or you could avoid the main plot altogether. A lovesick ghost may give you messages to her living crush, a man who just so happens to keep suffering random, near-death accidents.
High-tech wizardry is used relatively sparingly at Evermore. Instead, the park feels decidedly old-fashioned. Much of its stone and bricks was imported from Europe, and Bretschneider hunted down statues and artifacts from pre-1900.
"We’re saturated with media and bombarded with digital media from all sides all the time," says Phil Hettema, an esteemed designer in the theme park world who currently runs his own company. "We’re actually becoming more isolated, and the secret sauce of theme parks is that they’re really about the experience they create between people who are visiting."
Whether Evermore is ultimately a success, Hettema says to expect more of what the park is trying to accomplish beyond its borders.
Some of the stars of Universal’s Wizarding World are its interactive wands, which allow guests to play with one another and turn the land itself into an attraction. Disney, for its part, is building a hotel in Florida in which guests will be immersed in a Star Wars storyline that unfolds over the length of the stay.
The more that guests are buried in cellphones, says Hettema, the less interested they became in pure tech-driven experiences.