The carnival’s come to town, only it’s doing so practically every other month with a new “immersive” themed “experience” that involves a couple of weak, overpriced drinks, fun furniture on which to take Instagram photos on with your friends, and some performers trying to make a buck in something that’s not exactly theater.
Somehow, in the post-Museum-of-Ice-Cream era, in what are hopefully the waning days of a pandemic, San Francisco and other cities have become targets for traveling theme-show-bars like The Bridgerton Experience and a bizarre Peter Pan-themed bar. And where older generations might have thought themselves too cool for dumbshows like this, younger Millennials and Gen Zers must be patronizing them because they keep popping up like unwelcome new poxes.
Last year it was the LEGO-esque bar that couldn’t use the name LEGO because the brand would never allow it — it was called Brick Bar, and it came straight to SF after pre-pandemic stops in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, and Pittsburgh.
Come holiday time, there are over-the-top Christmas bars — though here in SF, we’ve had a couple of those that are curated and backed by local bar owners, so that’s at least keeping it local.
Netflix clearly needs the licensing revenue these days, and The Stranger Things Experience just landed at The Armory for a three-month stay, bringing with it an “80s nostalgia” arcade and other sets inspired by Stranger Things — as well as interactive challenges, special effects, and performances by a cast of actors who will also serve you drinks.
A month or so earlier, Neverland: An Immersive Peter Pan Inspired Bar, opened inside a private room at Trademark, the sports bar on Folsom Street in SoMa. (Trademark was earlier home to an Alice in Wonderland-themed bar “experience” in late 2021, from the same event producers.) Neverland is the product of Hidden Media Network, the Australian-based outfit that’s been putting on a slew of these paid-entry, theme-bar events in SF, LA, New York, Denver, and several Australian cities.
SFGate gave a reluctantly positive review of Neverland back in May, but it nonetheless is of apiece with all these other immersive, performative occasions for drinking — it’s an Instagram trap that costs $45 for a couple of smallish drinks, with some cringe-y acting thrown in for your tipsy entertainment.
The Queens Ball: A Bridgerton Experience is being put on by the same firm, Fever, a New York-based company that says on LinkedIn it employs a team of 800. And, “Fever and its Secret Media Network inspires over 60 million people every month to discover the best experiences in their cities.” The company’s tagline is “Democratizing access to culture and entertainment,” which seems a bit disingenuous if you ask me — tickets to the Bridgerton thing start at $54 and go up $94 for VIP, which is about what you would pay for an actual theater ticket, at an actual theater, with an actual scripted show. And aren’t you just basically going on the theme-park-ride version of a show you’ve already seen on Netflix? Wasn’t that entertainment already “democratized”?
As bars, restaurants, and regional theaters like SF Playhouse and Berkeley Rep and smaller venues like PianoFight continue to claw their way back from two years of pandemic financial collapse, it seems especially cruel for people to be spending their disposable income on these non-local “experiences” — especially in a city with food, cocktail, and arts scenes as vibrant as San Francisco’s — padding the pockets of these production companies who’ll be gone again in a month.
I could understand if you lived in Cleveland or Topeka that these things could be the the highlight of your month — basically, the carnival coming to town after many sleepier months. But are the people attending these things, cellphone cameras at the ready, actually getting unique thrills out of this stuff? Is it truly that cool to take a photo of yourself with an off-brand Captain Hook or demogorgon? Are they, like Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn, less engaged by real museums and real theater than they are by these Instagram traps and simulacra masquerades? If you didn’t take a selfie with a cast member it didn’t happen?
Sadly, this trend goes back half a decade now, and doesn’t yet show signs of fading into oblivion. As Amanda Hess wrote in a 2018 New York Times piece titled “The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience,'” “By classifying these places as experiences, their creators seem to imply that something happens there. But what? Most human experiences don’t have to announce themselves as such. They just do what they do. A film tells a story. A museum facilitates meaning between the viewer and a work of art. Even a basic carnival ride produces pleasing physical sensations.”
My advice, if your friends can’t find anything better to do on a Thursday or Friday, is to funnel your money toward the businesses that are actually invested in the city you live in. Give your dollars to a great cocktail bar, a local show, or a museum. We live in a city with an Instagrammable moment around every corner that does not cost $50 to enter. Otherwise we could soon find ourselves in a much less vibrant city where all we can do is wait for the next theme-bar carnival to show up.