In an age when work is paramount, money is at the forefront, politics and divisive arguments permeate civil conversations and the demand for time, attention and self-investment is incessant, a need for entertainment and an ample dose of escapism has become all the more of an interest for people.
Evidence of that comes when considering the plentitude of movie theaters, arcades and escape rooms dotting the valley, not to mention the sudden, raging popularity of axe-throwing and virtual reality experiences. The desire for something else, something more than the day-to-day has become ever more obvious, especially in recent months, and it’s a demand Ken Bretschneider, the CEO and founder of Pleasant Grove’s Evermore Park, hoped to answer to with the opening of his unique immersive reality venue in September of 2018.
“We use everything from technology to practical design to create original immersive stories,” Bretschneider said of his vision for and creative process behind the venue. “Evermore is, again, a place for these living storytelling experiences where instead of just sitting down like in a movie theater where you sit in a seat and watch an experience happen and unfold before you, you go into a world and we change everything in that world.”
What he may not have realized at the time, however, is just how much the “World Walkers,” visitors to the realm of Evermore, would truly do to change the trajectory of the park and its storylines for good.
Magic of Mythos
Still in its first year, Evermore is now in its third season of entertainment, having ushered guests through the dark world of Lore last fall and the bright and spirited holiday realm of Aurora over the winter months.
Now, the focus is on Mythos, described as “an enchanted festival of fantasy and magic,” a celebration where visitors to the park are encouraged to not only take in the sights and sounds of Evermore, but also interact with the characters who reside there and find ways to play and choose their own adventures.
“At first it was easy to think that we could do an annual cycle then reset and start over again,” said Chief Creative Officer Josh Shipley. “These characters have become so real to so many people including our actors that it’s more lifelike to play into the fantasy.”
According to Shipley, when Evermore first opened with Lore, the experience was pretty structured, with more linear paths that guests could follow, but the creators quickly realized that that many restrictions on the experience didn’t offer quite what guests were looking for. Observation and understanding led to a loosening of the rules with Aurora, though cast members had to tread lightly to not interfere with concepts that could veer away from the themes intended for the current season, Mythos.
“Mythos is more a hybrid now of Lore and Aurora,” Shipley said. “There’s still a huge, wide lane of story for our actors to play in but there has to be formality – if something evolves in a night of events and (actors) have an idea they would love to pursue with their character … we have a check in process with our story team.”
Things at Evermore can transpire quickly.
“We are seeing that people are coming back multiple times,” Shipley said. “We will see familiar faces not just once a week but every single time we’re open, and it’s fun to know that the story is unraveling and they want to gather all the pieces.”
For those not there as regularly, Evermore’s online community is bustling with fans and “World Walkers” seeking updates on the realm’s happenings, which can change in an instant based on the interactions of just one night.
“It could be intimidating, but it’s really exhilarating,” Shipley said of the constantly fluctuating story. “It’s very fluid and very organic but very stimulating. … We know we’re going to be doing things that people love.”
For each answer discovered by those at Evermore, another mystery surfaces with things happening in Mythos carrying character and story weight for the next season of Lore, set to open Sept. 6, as well as this winter’s Aurora.
“We’re finding guests really enjoy that kind of thing, and in a world of fantasy there’s nothing that keeps us from doing that,” Shipley said. “What I do think is important is that people do understand it is a living, breathing world and that the story does evolve around actions of our guests; ‘World Walkers’ do actually carry weight on the story of (characters’) lives.”
Mythos especially has lent itself to evolving in character and story, just because of the shift in seasons.
“Mythos has been a lot of fun and excitement but with that, we have to be very conscious and aware,” Shipley said. “It’s not just our chance to tell a new story or build upon a continuing story — it’s summer, it’s hot, the sun is up later. For Lore especially and Aurora, being in fall and winter months, we get to play with show lighting and in a way, it affects the moods. For Mythos, it’s light. It doesn’t get really dark until that last hour or hour and a half that the park is open, and we have to shift how to tell stories in that manner. It’s a very fantasy-themed world and that opened up a familiar mythological world with unicorns, dragons, ogres and trolls.”
Those fantasy elements allow for an adventurous story that doesn’t cater to the Halloween season like Lore, or holidays like Aurora, but focuses instead on a realm of storytelling and tropes that are familiar to all ages.
“The youngest of children to oldest of grandparents all have an idea of how that fantasy, forest-y realm and adventure world is,” Shipley said. “Finding every age at Evermore during Mythos, playing, joining guilds, shooting archery, laughing with ogres and goblins; it actually is a really fun world to create.”
Characters take center stage
One of the driving forces behind the magic of Evermore is Shipley, who left a 25-year career at Disney to help bring Evermore to life. According to Shipley, there are plenty of parallels between the theme park world and Evermore, with just as many important contrasts.
“It’s similar in the sense that it is a theme park, a physical location people go to be entertained,” he said of the park’s roots. “We strive toward the same goal of creating happiness for people to come and consume. We are creating escapism with that same thing in mind. We want you to leave your worries at the door so you can come in and enjoy yourself. It’s similar in all those ways.”
The root of the differences, Shipley said, is the attractions. While rides and other large-scale features tend to draw people to theme parks, it’s the experience, and especially the actors, that create life at Evermore.
“The characters are our attractions,” Shipley said. “We’re telling stories with the visuals and the park itself, with sound and audio, the smells and foods and on a large level with the performers. ... For me personally, it’s exciting and wonderful.”
That excitement for Shipley comes from his strong background in the theater arts: His family owned a theater and he grew up both onstage and backstage, making Evermore’s interactive roots a perfect connection to his own. Adding in his experience with theme parks and creation, it all comes down to a critical aspect: “The need for more personal interaction.”
“How can we reach out and make a human connection, especially in the digital age?” Shipley continued. “(We’re) all trying to take down that fourth wall now and approach the audience in a very personal way, to say ‘I see you, I hear you, I recognize you and you’re important here.’ It’s not just at Evermore. Everyone is trying to find a way to reach the audience in a personal way. For me, that was one of the selling factors in leaving Disney and coming to Evermore. The entire park was built for that purpose. The walls are pulled down and every person is the hero of that story.”
Bretschneider said Evermore was created not only as a living stage, but also “the ultimate stage,” and according to Shipley, those who attend have definitely been playing their roles.
“Evermore is a living, breathing place so the characters are important,” he said, noting that there are many characters that first appeared during Lore that are still integral to Evermore now with Mythos, not to mention the ample characters introduced through the “portal” with each new season.
On a busy night, Evermore is populated by up to 54 actors bringing individual characters to life with at least 40 regularly working with top-notch costumers, make-up artists and even builders to craft just one night of magic.
“So much of that is the idea that Ken brought to the table on this entire Evermore project,” Shipley said. “He created this base stage and this themed world. He knew it was going to be fun to play in, but didn’t know what that entertainment would be or how to populate it. He just knew it would be a fun playground, so to speak. He went over to Europe and pulled over a lot of architectural pieces, antiques and artifacts and built a lot of the park’s base structure on a European hamlet. That ends up being stimulating all in itself. But then there’s the world-building process. ... You step in this place and feel like you should know what’s going to be happening. From a story standpoint, it’s going back to what are the attractions of Evermore that populate that stage and bring it all together. It’s an entire amazing, living, breathing thing.”
Though the growth, evolution and construction of Evermore will always be ongoing in one way or another, there also will always be a little something magical for everyone who ventures a visit, according to the founders.
“There are so many different layers and elements of engagement,” Shipley said. “The hardest part is conveying that message up front for someone who hasn’t been there. When they get there, they get to choose the level they want to be involved, and people do understand they get out of it what they put into it. That even means just being an observer or a watcher in the world. ... All I can say for this first year is just come in and play — come experience it for yourself.”