Travel

Get Inside a Video Game at Albuquerque's Electric Playhouse

Down to dodge space debris?

Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse

The first task is innocent enough: Enter through a fantastical hallway arched with blue and purple neon lights. But before you do this, there’s a list of rules. The first rule: Just Be Cool.

Because at the other end of the hallway, there’s pure mayhem. Hundreds of digital squares line the floor, lighting up in patterns that flit across the room. Following the squares are people, zig-zagging this way and that, crossing paths and almost colliding in their pursuit. You instinctively know your assignment-pick your color and stomp on its squares. Battle it out against strangers for supremacy in this futuristic whack-a-mole.

This is Electric Playhouse: 25,000 square feet of fun in an Albuquerque strip mall, a template for what digital entertainment and immersive gaming could look like in the future. It’s social, active, and, as a benefit of the medium, transitory and infinite: play a game in one room and return 30 minutes later to find it fully transformed.

“It’s a new idea of what a family entertainment center can be,” says CEO (Chief Experience Officer) John-Mark Collins, who co-founded the concept with CEO (the other kind) Brandon Garrett, architect and creative technologist. “A kind of interchangeable, always-engaging community center for the 21st century.”

Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse

The night I’m there it’s almost all adults, which is striking: groups of friends, couples on dates, all acting like total fools-and loving it-as they try to dodge space debris, play full-body air hockey with a digital puck, or destroy dodgy asteroids with the aid of rubber balls. When it’s time to take a break, there’s a vibrant café and bar with a full menu, plus cocktails, like the vodka-and-blue-curaçao Electric Lemonade ($9) that looks especially cool under the bar’s psychedelic glow.

Later that night, I’ll attend one of the playhouse’s immersive four-course dinners, this one called Winter in Technicolor. Responsive images reminiscent of the season are projection mapped on the walls and the long communal tables. Wave your hand above your plate, and the image on the table ripples. And here, too, there are games: At one point, a digital spool of ribbon rolls by my plate, sent there by a diner at the other end of the table. I jerk my hand over it to get it to move, and it just barely budges. To get it to go any distance I have to wave my arms, dancing as my salmon tamale gets cold.

I eventually give up and drink my glass of wine.

Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse

Opening in February 2020, promptly closing due to Covid-19, and reopening again in June 2021, the mantra of Electric Playhouse is right there on the staff’s T-shirts: Play More. In the 16 interactive areas are rotating games, pulled from an ever-expanding library of 40, and art installations, of which they have 60 in the also-rapidly-growing archives. Images bend to your silhouette, mirrored rooms are turned into endless tunnels, digital paint splatters around you. There are DJ nights, a natural partner to the responsive digital projections, and those experiential dinners, the genesis of the whole shebang.

Under the name StoryLab, Collins specialized in immersive dining. After he met Garrett the two conceived of the gaming component. Now, they’re constantly looking to raise the bar when it comes to blending food and tech: At their Halloween dinner last year, they actually projected on the food. “In one of the courses, you were in a witch’s cottage,” says Garrett. “We had a white parsnip soup and mapped on top of the soup. When you stirred, a potion appeared on the food.”

That it’s all digital, from the games to that potion, is key: room designs can flip on a whim. (You could also show up tomorrow and find the walls totally blank-helpful if hiding from the FBI.) The projection capabilities mean they can transport you anywhere at a moment’s notice, which they see as especially beneficial for educational outings, or senior-center trips. “We can take them to Paris, we can take them to the Amazon rainforest if we need to. We can build those experiences to step out of the norm and into our space.”

Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse

And they’ve already started implementing this travel-in-place philosophy in private events. Want to transform your wedding into the Met Gala? That’s been done. “The first wedding we did was a local couple who met here and traveled to New York soon after they met,” says Collins. “So they wanted to relive that travel experience to New York, especially the Met. We did a bunch of interactive art pieces, there was a photo booth, they did karaoke in one of the private rooms. It was completely immersive, but personal.” (Also very useful in a pandemic.)

But for all its sense of fantasy and transformation, Electric Playhouse has a deep sense of place. Beginning with the actual space: Collins and Garrett looked to enrich communities and the economy by bringing traffic back into empty storefronts, eventually expanding to all major markets within ten years (next up: Houston). “We had all these developers come to us with all these empty big-box spaces, trying to figure out what to do when their major anchor is gone,” says Garrett. “By being digital, we can actually transform and bring back a much wider audience than any anchor did before, to really capture these 24,000-plus-square-foot facilities and be a catalyst for those areas to bring back that foot traffic.”

Rather than be a copy-and-paste franchise, each future iteration will have elements informed by its locality. The artists tapped, perhaps, or dining elements, like the salmon tamale at my dinner. For last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta-the largest ballooning festival of its kind in the United States-they threw a “‘Burque Brunch,” traveling through the city via its New Mexican food. In the future you might see a full hot-air balloon experience, as ballooning is famously weather-dependent. “When it’s windy, events typically get canceled,” says Garrett. “Say the glowdeo at night gets canceled, we could be the virtual glowdeo; still giving them the opportunity to see what it’s like.”

Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse

Maybe it’s the wide-open spaces or all the trippy geological formations inspiring prolific art since the early Indigenous peoples, but New Mexico has become somewhat of a creative hotspot. The high desert has called to productions from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul to Clint Eastwood’s latest, Cry Macho. Last summer, NBC Universal opened up a production studio in the city, joining Netflix, who recently invested $1 billion more in their existing studio there. Immersive juggernauts Meow Wolf got their start just down the street in Santa Fe. With room to think and nature to capture the imagination, innovation thrives on a large-scale level.

“I’ve talked with artists philosophically about that point, about New Mexico being this broad landscape,” says Collins. “People kind of come to New Mexico to find themselves, right? It’s the Southwest, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful, people are going to come and explore the mountains, and that kind of coalesces into this really creative power I think.”

And then there’s the layer of tech that the state is known for, home to Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos, one of the largest science and tech research institutions anywhere (and… nuclear-bomb creator). The two make a powerful combination. “We end up with this hybrid of software technologists and creative,” says Garrett. New Mexico artists are also now thriving in the NFT sphere, with new media artists like the Albuquerque-based Adrian Pijoan using them for works combining his interest in folklore and the Southwest landscape. Also aliens.

Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse
Photo courtesy of Electric Playhouse

And future plans for Electric Playhouse see them getting more into the interactive art side of things. But unlike the fifteen immersive Van Gogh experiences across the country, the works will be responsive, and exclusive. “We’re looking at doing a full immersive art experience that takes the Van Gogh to the next level where we’re actually interactive; it’s not a passive experience,” says Collins. They’re starting with the Albuquerque-based Lea Anderson, known for biomorphic installations, one of which is already in the Playhouse. And then they’re going bigger.

“Van Gogh has blown up because all the work is in the public domain: it’s so old that anybody can grab it and do their own interpretation of it,” says Collins. “What I think is missing [in interactive art] is partnering with established museums of artists of the 20th century that are years, if not decades away from the public domain-people like Salvador Dalí.” It’s just another thing they have in the works, to be unveiled this summer. Stay tuned.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She does not need to be told twice to play.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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