A True Showmance
The appetite for immersive adventures shows no sign of abating, and London is a hotbed of innovation. Pioneering, immersive theater companies, including Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk, continue to enthrall audiences, while new experiential attractions create a buzz.
Travelers to London’s Phantom Peak, which launched in August, will uncover the secrets of a steampunk-themed town and its inhabitants. The story unfolds with a culture clash between a mysterious, tech-savvy industrialist and an old mining town resisting change. The Old West-style world has a river boat ride, interactive trails and side quests, a waterfall, canals, bars, and eateries. The attraction spans 30,000 square feet indoors and around 20,000 square feet outdoors in the Canada Water neighborhood. The venue accommodates 300 people at a time, and there’s no age restriction.
At the helm are Director and Immersive Experience Designer Nick Moran and his business partner Glen Hughes, co-founder of Tandem Set and Scenery. Moran honed his skills in the escape room industry with projects including Sherlock: The Game Is Now (based on the BBC TV show) and Time Run. The pair self-funded Phantom Peak.
“We’re the ultimate fans of immersive experiences, so we’re trying to do all the things that we think are best in one world,” says Moran. They have combined what people love about large-scale immersive experiences “with what an escape room does best: intimacy, excitement, and small-scale storytelling,” Moran tells Funworld.
Phantom Peak aims to be a cohesive, detailed, storied world that people can connect with on a human level. “We’re doing things that theme parks do, just on a much smaller scale. It’s more about the acting (there are 35 actors), storytelling, exploration, and discovery. Players and immersive experience aficionados rate discovery highly. We want a world which on the surface seems one thing, but underneath is full of mysteries.”
Phantom Peak differs from other immersive shows—where people are typically pulsed through in groups—as guests can roam freely. Moran compares it to an “open-world video game.” Phantom Peak puts “customer agency and customer choice at the heart of the experience,” he says.
Guests set their own pace. The show lasts around five hours, although people can leave anytime. “Immersion is about creating a place that people believe is real,” Moran says, and giving guests time to get to know that world.
“You want an experience that caters to everyone,” he adds. “When you’re in a group, the most extroverted, highly engaged people step forward, and the more reticent, least engaged people step back. Some people fear interacting with actors or being put on the spot. So, I want to create an experience for them too. How you play at Phantom Peak is up to you. If you just want to be in a beautiful place, you can do that too.”
The freedom to roam suits guests’ different energy levels. “People might book a high-octane experience on a Thursday night, but after a bad day at work, all they want to do is go to the bar first,” Moran says. “A great immersive experience is about creating a place where people feel comfortable to play. It’s about trust.”
Moran believes “more people want to do immersive experiences around the world because they are one of the few experiential activities which, at their best, are truly player-focused. The customer experience comes first, and I’m absolutely committed to that.”
Harnessing an IP to Create Adventure
Tomb Raider: The Live Experience, which opened in May, has the benefit of an instantly recognizable intellectual property (IP). It is the latest offering from Little Lion Entertainment, which has already brought The Crystal Maze, a TV game show-inspired experience, to London and Manchester, U.K.
Created in partnership with Paramount Pictures, Crystal Dynamics, and Square Enix, Tomb Raider: The Live Experience sees guests join Lara Croft (played by “Tomb Raider” star Alicia Vikander) as she recovers a stolen artifact that has fallen into enemy hands. Guests travel from Croft Manor to chilly Finland; discover clues aboard a sinking cargo ship; and zip line through Costa Rican jungles before reaching the finale in an ancient tomb—all without leaving Camden’s Stables Market. Live actors, cinematic sets, environmental puzzles, and physical activities create a memorable trip. Guests must be aged 12 and over to play.
The project is “hugely respectful of the fans and of what’s come before,” says Little Lion Entertainment founder and CEO Tom Lionetti-Maguire. “But you’ve also got to have the creativity and imagination to bring something new to the canon and the franchise.”
The team has turned the 30,000- square-foot space into “a narrative-driven, kinetic, fast-paced, globe-trotting” adventure lasting 90 minutes. “We’ve always concentrated on curating experiences for a small group (of four to eight people),” says Lionetti-Maguire. “That’s incredibly powerful because it allows you to lose yourselves in the experience. For the time you’re in there, it’s your journey.”
Tomb Raider is “a big step towards everything that we want to do,” he says. “We’ve always challenged ourselves to be bolder and work with new IPs. We want to create loads of different shows.” Little Lion’s expansion plans include a new music experience with a world-famous music brand in Camden. In 2023, the company will open its first major attraction in the United States at the Grandscape development in Dallas. “In the next five years, we want to have at least five different attraction brands,” says Lionetti-Maguire.
“We’ve always wanted to propel this idea of immersive theater. It’s active, not passive, it speaks to a wide demographic, and it engenders teamwork. Collaboration and conviviality allow for beautiful, shared moments, which is something we need now more than ever.”
Immersive theater company Layered Reality first started mesmerizing audiences in 2018 with The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience, based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel. Layered Reality started with a belief that people were looking for city-based experiences that were new and different.
“People want to be told stories, and they want to have stories to tell,” says Founder and CEO Andrew McGuinness.
In June 2022, McGuinness teamed up with Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) to open The Gunpowder Plot at the vaults next to the Tower of London. “Harry Potter” movie star Tom Felton plays Guy Fawkes, one of a group of doomed Roman Catholic conspirators who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, King James I, and the Protestant government on Nov. 5, 1605. Felton heads a cast of over 50 digital actors and 20 live actors. The multi-million-pound show combines immersive theater with technologies including virtual reality and projection mapping, as well as physical effects, in the Tower Vaults.
“You are participating in the Gunpowder Plot at the place where that story began and ended, which adds to its uniqueness,” says McGuinness. (Fawkes and his surviving co-conspirators were imprisoned in the Tower of London before their execution.) Layered Reality, which owns and operates the attraction, worked closely with HRP’s team to ensure historical accuracy.
Guests become spies who infiltrate the Gunpowder Plot. Ultimately, they have to choose sides, and that decision shapes what happens to them. They will also complete a daring escape from the Tower through Jacobean London. “It’s like a Hollywood action movie combined with a historical drama,” says McGuinness.
Guests in groups of up to 16 begin the show every 10 minutes (the journey lasts an hour and 45 minutes.) The experience is rated as a 12A, so parental guidance is required. There are three themed bars on site as well.
“After the last couple of years, we’re all looking for escapes,” McGuinness shares with Funworld. “This is a wholly immersive experience where people can step back in time to another world. When people become participants, they become more embroiled and invested in the story, and it’s more fun. As a business, we exist to make memories, and if we can deliver something extraordinary, then we represent phenomenal value for money.”
One of the joys of being at the Tower of London is the annually replenishing tourist audience. Pre-COVID, the Tower of London was attracting three million visitors annually, and the performance since COVID has exceeded their expectations. “So, The Gunpowder Plot has the potential to have longevity,” says McGuinness.
Layered Reality has broader ambitions too. The company is in discussions with global IP holders and is developing its own IPs. “We’re in the foothills of what we can achieve, both in the U.K. and in cities around the world,” says McGuinness.
The immersive experience industry is proving to be dynamic, agile, and imaginative, as creators learn, improve, and evolve. Whether guests’ tastes run to mythical escapades, historical intrigues, alien invasions, or seeking new friends through shared quests, operators are finding fresh ways to let people live the dream.
Ones to Watch
Discover more immersive experiences like these:
Secret Cinema’s Guardians of the Galaxy: The Live Immersive Experience secretcinema.org
Jurassic World: The Exhibition at Excel London jurassicworldexhibition.com/uk/
Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City punchdrunk.com
Arkham Asylum (in development) arkhamasylum.com
Alice’s Adventures Underground at Labyrinth Waterloo thisislabyrinth.com