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Evermore Park in Pleasant Grove 'ensnares the senses' with immersive, interactive experience

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In 2014, ABC released a little-known, fantasy-based reality television series called “The Quest.” In the show, 12 contestants, known as Paladins, were brought from our world to the kingdom of Everealm by the three Fates to be tested until one True Hero remained to defeat the dark power of Verlox.

The show, created by some of the minds behind “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy and “The Amazing Race,” had the potential to be something really special, mixing a realm of fantasy with reality in an incredible way. Yet I knew nothing about it until it made its way to Netflix in 2015. It was so engaging to me that I watched it three or four times during the year it was available on the streaming service -- just 10 episodes, but the opportunity to discover a reality beyond just the one we live in. It lit a fire in me, and brought a new excitement that I hadn’t felt in a long time and haven’t felt since. That is, until I found myself walking through the gates of Evermore Park in Pleasant Grove for the first time, not just witnessing the adventure on television, but bracing myself to experience it for the first time.

The concept of Evermore has been around just as long as “The Quest,” and even longer if you consider the fact that it was founder Ken Bretschneider’s lifelong dream to create an immersive experience and an escape of sorts from the grind of daily life.

“I kept being drawn to this idea of imagination and creativity and how it’s so important for children and adults alike to be able to explore their imagination,” Bretschneider said.

What really sets the concept of Evermore Park apart, though, is the passion and sacrifice that’s gone into creating it.

“Evermore is a major passion project for me,” Bretschneider said in a teaser video featuring the park. “I’m an artist (and) I brought a collective of artists together. This is not some big corporation putting this together. It’s a bunch of passionate people bringing something, I think, really amazing to the world. Evermore is being built right now. Actual buildings are going up, thousands of trees are going in, tens of thousands of plants are being planted, creatures are being created. It’s happening right now.”

For years, I’ve heard of the concept of Evermore Park, and for years I’ve built a carefully hidden enthusiasm to dive into it, so when I noticed the construction happening just off the Pleasant Grove Boulevard exit in Pleasant Grove, my anticipation shifted into overdrive. Every time Evermore Park cycled in and out of the news, I clung to every word, mostly trying to imagine just what it would be. Even in more recent weeks, with its opening imminent, and after talking to the founder myself about the concept, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d experience, but I knew it was still an experience I wanted to have.

That experience finally came this week, when I purchased tickets to take my family to the soft opening of the park. With the official start of the adventure so close at hand, I hoped that an early glimpse would allow me to explore with my small children before the crowds of equally curious guests ventured out, and it ended out to be even better than I could have ever hoped for.

In a release on the park, Bretschneider said the Grand Opening had been set for this upcoming Saturday, Sept. 29, "in order to give Evermore Park's guests the opportunity to truly 'Enter the Story.’

"The soft-opening week before the official grand opening allows us to fine-tune the experiences Evermore's guests will have,” he said. “The entire Evermore team is beyond excited to welcome guests and have them experience first-hand the world of Evermore."

Despite the fact we ventured out prior to the official opening, from the moment we entered the gates, our experience was nothing but magic. We got tickets to Evermore’s current event – LORE, opting for the “Magical World” rather than the “Cursed World” to cater more to our small children. Described as “a fun, spooky trick-or-treating adventure and magical festival for the whole family,” “Magical World” runs at the park from 6:30-8 p.m., followed by “Cursed World,” “the event of the season, filled with thrills and horrors,” which runs from 8:15-10:30 p.m. Both options, however, grant access to the park until closing, and we found ourselves delving into the adventure well past dark.

To get to Evermore, we mostly followed our eyes, as the roads are still being updated on most digital maps. It’s easy to see the park as soon as you exit the freeway, and the unique architecture is hard to miss. We inadvertently parked by the exit, but it was a short walk around a beautiful building (the barn, I believe) to find the entrance, and the Evermore staff was more than helpful in getting us where we needed to be for our story to start.

One of the most impressive parts of the experience right from the beginning was the way Evermore engaged the senses. Walking toward the place where you scan tickets, an incredible smell wafted toward me, intentionally included to merge with the unique setting, detailed costuming and actual artifacts and historical items utilized to create a new world.

“We brought all this history back to (create magic) with amazing productions on top of it,” Bretschneider said of the experience. “LORE has 70 unique characters with masks, prosthetics, animatronics, lighting, sound, music, smells – everything. There’s a lot of technology and something like 5 miles of fiber optics with actor-triggered controls and timed controls. … The name of the game for Evermore is it’s really all about the detail.”

Though built, designed and constructed in the modern age, Evermore was created to appear as a place out of time, meaning buildings, furnishings and structures were created and then aged to give a unique feel. Adding to the impact is a variety of items brought back from Europe to help create a real, detailed environment.

“The whole village has historical pieces from Europe, including columns, doors, window jambs, furniture – the pieces are all from the Gothic era and some are as old as 900 AD,” Bretschneider said. “There are Celtic ruins we brought back, and I don’t know how many tons of all-hand carved stone.”

In total, the Evermore team brought back 14 40-foot containers of historical items from Europe to be used in the design and creation of Evermore, from real tombstones to centuries-old furnishings, statues and figures to pieces of architecture. And what amazed me the most upon actually experiencing it was the fact that I couldn’t always tell what was old and what was new. It all just worked together to create an experience unto itself.

According to Bretschneider, utilizing the old and the new is all about striking a balance.

“With those historical pieces, there’s just some kind of spirit and magic to it you just can’t recreate,” he said. “We create original art, but we also appreciate these historical pieces and, to put them in that world, the world comes to life.”

There was a lot to take in upon entering Evermore, from the detailed structures and design to the residents of Evermore who were quick to greet us and inquire as to the purpose of our visit. It became clear early on that “a portal” truly had “opened” in the village, paving the way for not only magic and creatures to exist in Evermore, but also guests like ourselves.

Aged walkways were lined with glowing jack-o'-lanterns of all sizes and colors, and our kids were immediately enchanted by them, leading to a hardy handful of stops to gaze in wonder as we continued along our path. Unsure of exactly what to do or where to go, I was especially impressed by the way the actors of Evermore guided us to stories and experiences without disturbing the delicate balance of engagement and imagination with reality.

It wasn’t just a series of actors welcoming us to Evermore, though. Just to the right of the entrance was the Fae King – a gigantic magical being eager to taunt and engage with his new subjects.

The character was quite a feat of design and engineering, with light and movement as well as a deep, gravelly voice. Mostly skeletal with a thick cape, giant staff and long curving horns, just seeing him would have been an experience. But talking with him? It was even more unique and incredible. Though my kids were hesitant at first about engaging, by the time we left, we had to go back with our 3-year-old multiple times as she thought of new retorts she wanted to sling his way.

We also interacted with a tall satryr with long furry legs and intricate horns, a fortuneteller, an herbalist, a chemist, some particularly fantastic goblins with the most incredibly realistic facial features, a knight, witches, a ghost, a gravedigger and fanciful fairies during our trip through Evermore, just to name a few. There was no shortage of incredible characters, not to mention things to see and do.

Though Evermore is still very much under construction in certain areas, it almost allowed for the experience to be a little more special – like we were being invited in behind the scenes to witness the creation of a world.

Among the first stops on our journey through Evermore was to the Notting Glass House, which serves as home to a variety of unique and living creatures. From a python to a parrot, owls to hawks, the variety of animals housed at Evermore is intriguing, and we were also able to encounter real horses and mythological creatures such as dragons.

The outside of the Glass House is fully constructed and brings an old, sort of rustic magic feeling to the park. With the Evermore Gardens just across the path, it’s a fun start to an evening of adventure. One thing I’m most excited about seeing on return visits is how the newly planted foliage continues to grow and create even more of an environment and experience. Walking through the garden brought carefully planned sights, sounds and special effects, so imagining that magnified in the future is really exciting.

The cobblestone path that led from the gardens to the tavern was the next step in our journey, and was truly one of the first complete hints of just how detailed and incredible Evermore will become as the build-out continues.

Walking into the tavern, bottles lined the shelves behind the bar on one wall, while a fire crackled in a grate along another. Combining that with the detailing in the architecture, it was hard not to feel immersed in the world of Evermore. We listened in on side conversations between an executioner and some other Evermore guests at a table near an entry, while another group of eager onlookers gathered around a giant, slain beast to hear tales of the hunting and adventure. Out the far side of the tavern, we wandered across a beautiful bridge with waterfalls, past a watermill and over to the graveyard, mausoleum and crypt.

Though there were still clear tells of a realm under construction, there was nothing unfinished about the power of our experience walking through the skeleton-lined walls under the mausoleum at Evermore. Pairs of creatures lined the dark, eerie stone walls with flickering fire-lighting, and as the original scores of Evermore played in the background, the tension only rose. There was no need for live spooks to line the hallways – the experience itself was chilling, and I’m pretty sure the reason we were so stoic about it was because we didn’t want to freak the kids out more than they already were!

We explored the upper floor of the mausoleum next, admiring the Gothic architecture, stonework, statues and atmosphere. Going into Evermore, I knew there was an ample helping of old fixtures and furniture, tombstones and detailing brought over from Europe, but I honestly struggled to tell the difference between what was actually old and what was made to look old, as the attention to even the finest details was acute.

Though they were wary, the kids found the opportunity to visit with a ghost in the graveyard, actually really enchanting, and we enjoyed eavesdropping on other guests visiting with the gravedigger, where we got our first hints of the story unfolding in Evermore.

The older portion of the village was alive with tents, giant pumpkins for the Pumpkin Festival and characters of all sorts, and after admiring the beautiful fountain outside the chapel, we loved walking down the path to immerse ourselves a little bit more. A witch told us the story of how she got some of the items in her shop, while fairies instructed us in how to become fairies ourselves. We had our past, present and future unfolded in uncannily accurate fashion by the fortuneteller, and even tried our hand at shooting a bow and arrow.

It’s hard to describe the feel of Evermore, but we soon learned that you take out of the experience what you put into it, and we were surprised when two hours had passed and we were just barely embarking on a quest to help discover a cure for a strange illness sweeping across the land as some of the storyline itself set in. We’d been having so much fun just interacting with the environment that we’d neglected to delve into the underlying story.

I think I imagined more of a structured adventure when I first heard descriptions of the park, but I was actually really enthusiastic to find it was less of that, and more of these characters guiding you along a path to create your own adventure. As the darkness encroached and some of the less-savory residents of Evermore made their way to the streets, a friendly goblin noticed the uneasy looks on our faces and the faces of our kids, and joined us as we walked past, sharing in our concern and lightening the situation.

There is a story to be told at Evermore, but it’s up to you as the visitor to decide when and how much of it you experience and understand. We loved running through the tunnels in the larger pumpkins in the town, getting treasures from our goblin friend and bit by bit discovering the mystery of LORE.

It was a unique experience to see the characters interacting with each other as well as us, learning our names and making us feel a part of their world.

As we made our way toward the exit several hours later, we took time to stop at one of several stone-encircled fire pits lining the path and just soak in the experience. As the evening sky shifted from light to dark with a full moon cresting the rooftops, the signs of construction and growth faded away, leaving a hint of magic and mystery that made us reticent to leave.

It’s not hard to see the time and talent that has gone in to the creation of Evermore, and it makes me all the more eager to return as it continues to grow and the story evolves.

When I first read Harry Potter, I found myself drawn into the magic in a similar way, and I’m particularly reminded, after this experience, of a quote by potions professor Serverus Snape.

“I can teach you how to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses,” he said. “I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death.”

My time at Evermore sucked me in, ensnaring my senses and leaving a strange feeling with me as I returned to reality. Though it had only been a few hours, the outside world felt foreign to me, and though my adventures made me tired, we all knew there was still so much more to discover through the portal to Evermore.

Kari Kenner manages and creates digital features and niche content for the Daily Herald.

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