More travelers look for group adventures

  • Article by: ALYSON KRUEGER , New York Times
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 2:00 PM

From Wisconsin Dells to Escape Room NYC, more travelers are seeking out immersive games.

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Kids can imagine themselves in a magical world at MagiQuest at the Great Wolf Lodge in Wisconsin Dells. MagiQuest games cost as little as $12.99 (plus the cost of the wand, of course)

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Every few months, at Musha Cay, a private resort in the Bahamas owned by David Copperfield, the magician gathers his guests and tells them the legend of the unknown pirate. In an old book bought in an antiques store, he explains, he found a pirate, a relative of his. Then he asks the guests for help finding his treasure.

Over the next three hours, teams travel by boat and land across 11 islands. Musical scores written specifically for each group accompany their journey as they meet pirates who ignite parchment scrolls into flames, levitate guests in broad daylight, even “cut off” heads with a faux guillotine. At every stop, visitors have to overcome challenges both physical and mental, all to find the treasure chest full of vintage jewelry keepsakes the magician has collected over decades of traveling. (Each group also gets an engraved iPad with its scores.)

“Every single thing is mastered in perfect detail, so it’s really like you are living in a movie,” Copperfield said in an interview. “It is these experiences guests remember.”

The Musha Cay adventure is particularly elaborate, and wildly expensive: A four-night stay on the island is $156,000 for a group; the treasure hunt is an extra $20,000. But more modest immersive experiences — travel games, you may call them — are becoming increasingly popular at resorts and other destinations around the world.

Magic and spies

At Great Wolf Lodge Resorts, a chain of indoor water parks, children dressed as sorcerers and princesses receive magic wands and search for gold coins hidden around the resort in a game called MagiQuest. At the International Spy Museum in Washington, visitors are turned into operatives and sent on a mission around the city to stop agents from selling classified information to foreign spies. On the Disney Magic cruise ship, children can “wear” a virtual version of Iron Man’s suit and then test their skills at blasting targets.

These adventures are designed for a particular sort of traveler, one who is not satisfied relaxing on a beach or listening to a tour guide. They force interaction, both with other guests and with the destinations themselves. And they are particularly suited to families, since they also combine teamwork, creative thinking and often a bit of bravery.

“There are more and more things like this that are starting to happen,” said Lissa Poirot, the editor of Family Vacation Critic, a website that reviews family-friendly travel options. “And I think it’s because families are looking for something that will give them special memories.”

There’s a bit of one-upmanship in this, Poirot said, as more tourists have “been there and done that.” Copperfield said his project was designed for “billionaire guests who have pretty much seen everything.” (His latest creation is a secret village with monkeys, accessible only by an underwater dive.) But it’s not just billionaires who are seeking adventure travel that goes beyond hikes and zip lines.

Victor Blake, the creator of Escape the Room NYC, a live event that traps participants inside a seemingly ordinary midtown office until they solve puzzles and earn their freedom (similar projects have popped up in other cities, including Riddle Room and Room Escape Adventures in the Twin Cities), created his attraction for tourists searching for something out of the ordinary. “Even in a place like NYC, people say there are a million things to do, but we end up eating and drinking or drinking and eating most of the time,” he said. “I thought this would be something just a little different.”

Getting kids out of their tech

For parents, these projects can also be a way to better involve their children in the travel experience. “They are on their iPhones, they are on their computers, they are on their iPads,” Poirot said. “Parents are trying to find these ways to get their kids involved and have fun together.”

Michael May of New Jersey, a father of six whose ages range from 7 months to 12 years, has taken his family to Great Wolf at least 30 times over the years. MagiQuest, the resort’s Harry Potter-esque game, “forces you to read the book and find the clues,” he said, acknowledging that it can be a positive thing for parents, too. “It also forces you to spend more quality time with the kids.”

On the other hand, many children — who now read make-your-own stories on iPads, place their faces into Disney stories using apps and play video games that take them into virtual worlds — are used to being part of the action. Holley Oellerich, a Washington-based mother of two, recently bought a one-year membership to the Spy Museum because her son loved the missions and actually learned from them (one of the highlights of the mission is when participants visit a pizza parlor where spies used to congregate and leave clues hidden in plain sight). “This is where the kids are, so it’s where we have to be as well,” she said.

It’s not just children who are getting used to the ubiquity of interaction.

“When I started in show business, entertainment and communicating was all about me talking to the audience,” Copperfield said. “Now people talk back to you. For better or for worse, every day, people write reviews and they talk back, and the audience now has a voice — so it’s about affecting them and touching them and letting them write the play.”

Blake, of Escape the Room, said that phenomenon is only getting more intense, which, perhaps counterintuitively, leads things back to reality. “If you think through the life cycle of tech, each iteration has made things more immersive,” he said. “There were TVs, then surround sound, then 3-D, and now virtual reality. But still the epitome of immersive is real life.” (It’s telling that his attraction is currently ranked as the No. 3 New York attraction on TripAdvisor, above more traditional destinations like the Empire State Building and Ellis Island.)

Nothing like the real thing

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