For almost nine years, Erick and Kim Olson have been running Wizardz Magic Theater, a magic show held every Monday at the Seralago Hotel & Suites in Kissimmee, Florida. That nine-year anniversary is something to be proud of; few magic shows (or any show, for that matter) survive that long, and after almost a decade, Wizardz is doing more than surviving—it’s thriving.
Their May 28th show was no exception: the 50-seat theater was sold out, with locals and tourists, magicians and laypeople alike, packed close together to enjoy an hour of magic. Erick and Kim have learned much over the years on how to run a successful show, and their insights are invaluable for anyone interested in starting a recurring magic or variety show of their own—here are a few of their tips for getting started.
Running a show on your own is difficult, if not impossible. One of the keys to Kim and Erick’s success is that they run the theater as a team, with their different backgrounds (Erick is a professional magician and his wife, Kim, is a layperson with experience in sales) helping them better manage all aspects of the show. Partners having different perspectives can be helpful but can also create conflict.
Conflict, however, isn’t a bad thing if both partners are committed to working through their differences in opinion. As Erick explains, “Kim’s got a view of the business end, and I have more of an entertainer’s view, and sometimes those views can clash…but we talk it through. Each one of us says, ‘Let me have a chance to do it this way this week, and we’ll see how it goes.’”
So whoever you choose to work with—whether it’s a performer, a business colleague or a family member—make sure you both agree on how you want to communicate or work through points of disagreement.
Consistency is crucial for building a recurring magic show, especially in the first year. The Olsons hold shows every Monday and rarely cancel. Even monthly shows should happen at the same time (for example, on the third Tuesday of each month). It should be something that regular patrons can rely on, something that they can look forward to, something that becomes a part of their lives.
At Wizardz, the split between magicians and laypeople is roughly 50/50, and Erick makes sure to welcome every person who comes, no matter how familiar they are with magic. “We try to make every new person feel like they’ve been there before,” Erick explains. “Our goal is to make everybody feel that they’ve been part of [the local magic community] for a long time even though it’s their first time at Wizardz.”
Wizardz does well on this front. “It’s really intimate,” says Heather, a California resident who was in Florida on vacation when she attended the May 28th show. “It’s like a throwback to vaudeville in a town full of franchises, overstimulation and commercialism. I loved the ‘insider’ feel of the show; it was like I was part of an exclusive underground club!” Rachel, another tourist from California who also attended the May 28th show, agreed. “Everyone is so welcoming, and it’s a show for everyone—young and old!”
The heart of Wizardz, however, is its core group of regulars who come not only to see magic, but also to catch up with others in the community. “I’ve met, and become friends with, several magicians via Wizardz,” says Robert Benedict, a dedicated magic hobbyist who does a few paid shows a year and has attended almost every Wizardz performance. “Wizardz is a means of keeping in touch with friends—magician or otherwise—with whom I enjoy a common interest.”
But regardless of the mix of your patrons, the important thing is to welcome them and talk to them, not only to make them feel welcome, but to get their feedback so you can continuously provide a show that exceeds their expectations.
Finding a venue that is willing to host a show on the same day each week or month for at least a year is crucial. When looking for the right space, it’s important to consider how it fits into your budget and if it’s in a safe and easy to find area.
In their initial search for space, Erick and Kim made sure to frame their show as something in the Seralago’s interest. “When I pitched my idea to the General Manager [of the Seralago], he said, ‘What is this going to cost me?’”, Erick recounts. “I said it wasn’t going to cost him anything, and he said, ‘Oh, can you start next week?’”
The Olsons’ relationship with the hotel continues to this day, with the Seralago benefiting from an influx of people buying food and drinks, and the Olsons benefiting from having a space that takes little time to set up and also offers on-site storage for the show’s set up materials.
“I learned a lot about marketing. It’s not just open the doors and people will come,” Erick says. “My biggest tip would be to Google what to do in the area your venue is in and see what comes up,” Erick says. “Then make sure your venue is listed on every single thing there is to do. 90% of it is free.” And while specific strategies vary, both Kim and Erick also agree that social media is important in getting people to come to a show. “We’ve had good luck with Facebook ads,” Kim says. These ads are useful because you can target people in your area who might have ‘Liked’ pages that relate to magic.
Equally important to having consistent shows is having a rotating cast of performers. Erick initially wanted to perform each week, but soon realized he needed to take a different approach. “I was getting locals coming back every week,” he explains, “and I didn’t have enough new material for them. Nobody does, really.”
Erick and Kim solved this problem by inviting other magicians to perform, which brought enough variety to the show that people kept coming back. “You should at least have some different acts that locally can rotate so it can be fresh as often as possible,” Erick says. “That keeps your base coming back instead of saying ‘Oh, I’ve seen that guy before.’” The expectation of different acts and performers has been a boon for Wizardz. As Erick explains, regulars “know they can come back and they’re not going to see the same thing for at least six months.”
The quality of the acts is also essential, of course. “Seeing good magic makes me feel like a kid again,” long-time regular Robert explains. “I still get great joy and entertainment when I see magic performed well, and Wizardz has provided me with seeing well-performed magic via some of the top-notch performers they’ve brought in over the last nine years.”
These tips, combined with the willingness to work hard, are crucial to the success of a show. But each show in each town faces unique challenges. To help troubleshoot these challenges, the Olsons offer one-on-one consulting support to help others navigate the specific nuances, variables and challenges that inevitably arise when one builds a show from the ground-up.
The Olsons also point out that hard work is necessary but not sufficient; another requirement for a successful show is that the producers have a passion and love for the art. “We truly believe that if you are in it for the money, your chances of being sustainable are slim,” explains Kim. “If you are doing it for the love of magic and to bring a magical experience to people’s lives, you will have much success.”
And there’s no doubt the Olsons have a deep love of magic—visit the Seralago on any Monday night to see their passion and enthusiasm firsthand. And if you share their love of magic and want to build your local magic community, get in touch with the Olsons—they can help you start a show of your own.
Theme park rides have been delighting Disneyland and Universal Studios guests for decades. While some of their attractions are decades-old themselves, people flock to them again and again because they’re entertaining, create a sense of wonder and (for some adults in the crowd) evoke happy childhood memories.
Part of what makes these rides so entertaining is that many of them include effects that, to the average viewer, defy the laws of reality. Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion, for example, includes a dining room scene where a gaggle of transparent ‘ghosts’ dance through tables and hang from chandeliers. Another example a short walk from The Haunted Mansion is Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. At the end of this ride, Roger uses a movable hole (you know, like the ones you see in cartoons) to make a tunnel appear on what looked like a solid wall. Universal Studios has impressive illusions as well; if you head to their Orlando theme park, you can step into a re-creation of London’s King’s Cross Station and watch your muggle friends melt into a brick archway that takes you to Station 9 ¾ (just like Harry Potter!).
Most theme park guests, if they think about it at all, likely imagine that these effects are from cutting-edge technologies (Holograms! Lasers!). These illusions, however, come from techniques developed more than 150 years ago, a time when the horse and buggy was the most advanced mode of transportation.
How have these antique techniques stood the test of time? The answer is obvious to those well-familiar with the history of magic: Magnets.
Not magnets…that’s the wrong M-Word. Today’s M-Word is Mirrors.
So, what about mirrors? Well, mirrors (and clear polished glass) cause reflections, and sometimes those reflections—when they are angled properly and appropriately lighted—get projected in ways that make people think they’re seeing a ghost or something in front of them inexplicably appear or disappear.
Let’s start with the dancing ghost effect in The Haunted Mansion, which is a favorite example of one of the oldest illusion reflection techniques. Despite what some may think, the spooky spirits aren’t holograms: no lasers were involved in the development of this illusion.
Have you ever stood outside on a cold, dark night and looked longingly at something in a shop window or (hopefully not) into someone’s home? If so, when you looked into that well-lit space, you might have seen a transparent image of yourself in that room. This phenomenon stems from the same principle that creates the specters of The Haunted Mansion, where the ghosts are reflections through silvered glass of animatronics found above and below the ride’s moving car.
This effect is commonly known as Pepper’s Ghost (much to the chagrin of its co-inventor, Henry Dircks), and was first presented in 1862 by John Henry Pepper on the Royal Polytechnic stage in London. Pepper intended to present his illusion as a scientific curiosity, but immediately realized the effect had the potential to be more than just a scientific presentation. “He was ready at the end of the first performance to walk out on stage and start to explain to everybody how it worked, because that’s what he did as a science exhibitor,” Jim Steinmeyer, an illusion creator and historian who has documented the science and history of Pepper’s Ghost, explains. “But when he heard the response to it…he never explained it on stage.”
This technique moved from the theater to sideshows and eventually to theme parks. Today, several attractions use Pepper’s Ghost; for example, this concept in conjunction with other mirror-based effects is what makes people magically walk ‘through’ the wall to Station 9 3/4. Other rides also use this technique in tandem with digital video technology. In the queue for Universal Studios’ Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, for example, guests watch Harry, Ron and Hermione chat on a balcony and then disappear under Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. Here, the image guests see of the magical trio is the reflection of digital video through a sheet of glass, the same basic technique that Pepper used in the 1860s.
Pepper’s Ghost was one of the first mirror-based illusion techniques, but not the last. “It inspired a number of important illusions,” Steinmeyer says. “It started people thinking about those principles of reflection and the use of mirrors on stage.”
By 1865, Pepper’s colleague Thomas William Tobin developed a technique called The Sphinx, which used a tri-mirror setup to make a portion of a person or object invisible to viewers (viewers in the right sight line, at least). The Sphinx was quite popular when it premiered, and designers use similar concepts in theme parks to this day. For example, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Universal Studios uses this technique to hide the mechanics that make a crate rise into the air, giving the impression that it is floating. Similar methods are also what cause the tunnel to suddenly ‘appear’ to riders on Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.
Other theme park rides use double parabolic mirrors to create hologram-like images. For this technique, two concave parabolic mirrors are sandwiched together, with the top one having a small hole in its center. The mirrors then reflect a 3D image above this opening of any object placed inside the parabolic sandwich. This phenomenon is used in optical illusion toys and is also used in rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventure at Disneyland, where the Witch offers guests a poisoned apple that passes through their hands if they try to touch it. The apple guests see is not the actual apple, of course, but a 3D image created by parabolic mirrors.
It took almost a century for Pepper’s Ghost and other mirror-based illusions to make their way from the theater to theme park attractions. Once designers incorporated them into the ride experience, however, it became clear that these techniques had found a home in amusement parks.
Theme park rides are perfect for this type of illusion because everything a person experiences on a theme park attraction is controlled, from when they see something, to how long they see it, to what angle they see it at. This precise level of control gives ride designers and engineers an ideal environment for creating illusions. “You can guarantee what the sight lines are…that gives the ride a new impetus, and that’s where you see these fantastic, wonderful, perfect views of these effects,” Steinmeyer explains. “[Designers] use the motion of the ride itself to create the progression of the illusion or the special effect or the story.”
And that illusion is made even more fantastic by the fact it’s seamlessly integrated into the world of the ride—of course spooky ghosts are haunting a haunted house, and of course a cartoon rabbit can carry a removable hole he can stick on anything. For Station 9 3/4, the illusion helps people relive a favorite scene from the Harry Potter books and movies; they’re in that world, not just reading or watching it.
And remember, these effects aren’t some new-fangled discovery. As Steinmeyer explains, “Successful tricks like this are really simple, elegant, and slightly crude in terms of how they’re done.” And so, the next time you’re at Disneyland and your know-it-all friend comments on how cool The Haunted Mansion’s holograms are, just smile smugly and nod your head.
The Trials of Houdini. Filigree in Shadow. The Werewolf Experiment. Queen Anne’s Revenge. The Confederate Spy Mistress. The Hunt for the Forgotten Tomb.
You may be wondering what the titles above have in common. Are they rejected PBS shows? Forgotten theme park rides? Doctor Who/Days of Our Lives crossover fan fiction?
While these are all good guesses (well, not that good, to be honest), none of them are correct; these are titles to at-home escape room games.
What’s an at-home escape room game, you may ask? Let’s start by explaining what a traditional escape room is. In warehouses in low-rent neighborhoods across the world, friends, colleagues, and couples on awkward second dates are paying $30 to $40 per person to get locked in a room with each other. Their goal is to get out of that room (and hopefully still like one another) in under an hour. And the only way they can do that is by solving a series of puzzles.
These brick-and-mortar escape rooms have become extremely popular, a special event on par with going to a concert or a play. But like a concert or a play, traditional escape rooms are expensive and not easily accessible to people who don’t live near a large city. As a result, game creators saw an opportunity to make a more accessible and affordable escape room experience that people can play in their homes.
At-home games vary in format—some are tabletop games put out by major manufacturers like Mattel; some are subscription-based services that mail you a new ‘escape room in a box’ every couple of months; some mail you clues and puzzles over a series of weeks. But regardless of the format, these games aim to create the same sense of surprise and excitement that escape room players feel once they solve that final puzzle and unlock that final door. The challenges these games must overcome to do that, however, is a story in itself.
The theme or story of the game is crucial for both at-home and brick-and-mortar escape room experiences. To this end, designers must keep the story top of mind when going through the puzzle-making process. “You have to get people involved in the story,” Chris Barnes, creator of Escape The Crate explains. “If that story element is not there, the puzzle is not quite as enjoyable. The story comes first, and the puzzles must build themselves off of that story.”
Tying the puzzles into the story isn’t the only challenge at-home escape room creators have; designers of these games also deal with several other challenges, most of which brick-and-mortar experiences don’t face.
Challenge 1: The Story (And the Puzzles) Must Work in A Million Different Rooms
At-home creators face an additional challenge when trying to create their story; their puzzles must not only tie in with the game’s theme or narrative, but also be flexible and adaptable to any environment. “It’s incredibly hard, but the designer of the experience can’t make any assumptions about a player’s venue or location,” explains Simon Coronel, a professional magician who has beta-tested at-home escape rooms. “If people aren’t playing the game correctly, it’s the designer’s fault.”
The designer doesn’t know, for example, if the people will be playing on the floor or at a table, if they’ll be wearing shoes (hey, it could matter) or if they’ll even have a smartphone on them. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that at-home games don’t have a person on hand who can provide hints or assistance as needed—every explanation or clue at-home players receive must be in the box the game came in.
Challenge 2: The Puzzles Must Be Difficult (But Not Too Difficult)
The designer has more responsibility than simply creating an easy-to-understand game, of course; players buy these games expecting puzzles that are difficult, but not too difficult to solve. “You have to make sure it’s challenging but fair,” Juliana Patel, co-creator of the tabletop escape room game The Werewolf Experiment, explains. “It should be well clued and without a logical leap. We want our hardest puzzles to be the kind of puzzles that when you solve them, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I see it. It was all there.”’ Again, it all comes back to the story–the puzzles should make sense, and also tie into the theme in a clear way.
Challenge 3: Not All Traditional Escape Room Puzzles Work In People’s Living Rooms
So, we know escape room puzzles must be simple to understand yet difficult to solve. But what type of puzzles work best in someone’s living room? Unsurprisingly, at-home games have more limitations than brick-and-mortar rooms on how to present puzzles and clues. In traditional escape rooms, for example, creators often hide clues taped under a chair or underneath a rug, ,something that can’t be created for an at-home game unless breaking and entering is involved. To add insult to injury, these clues or props are usually too heavy or too fragile for shipping.
Despite this limitation on props, most at-home creators agree that their games shouldn’t be entirely paper-based. “It can’t all be paper,” Barnes says. “You have to have some physical props in it…little props and goodies that are tactile.” Barnes uses items like coins and puzzles that require a blacklight (one small and durable enough to be shipped, of course) to create that tactile experience.
What Can Help With These Challenges and Enrich the At-Home Experience? Technology!
Several at-home games are also leveraging technology to enhance players’ experiences. The Werewolf Experiment, for example, has a tie-in with Amazon’s Alexa. While players play the game, Alexa establishes a spooky, werewolf-like mood with themed music and also helps players track their time and ask for hints. Barnes’s Escape the Crate games integrate technology even more by using a password-protected website where players must submit their answers to puzzles in order to receive the next clue. Just like the puzzles, however, designers agree that any technology should be themed—a part of the experience rather than an add-on.
So how do creators figure out what works and what doesn’t before they sell their games? Patel and her co-creator Ariel Rubin tackled this challenge through hundreds of hours of testing. “It all comes down to play testing,” Rubin says. “Our first game took three hours, and it was grueling.” As they continued to test the game, however, they realized what worked and what didn’t and tweaked the game accordingly. Without this process, the game would never have made it to manufacture. As Rubin explains, “Our puzzles were formed the way they are, even the colors we used, because of play testing and seeing how people responded to them.”
One thing Patel and Rubin learned from testing is that logic puzzles didn’t work well for an at-home escape room experience because most people weren’t familiar with how they worked. “People would just pick up [the logic puzzle] and put it back down,” Rubin says. “That’s always a sign your puzzle is not going to work.” Barnes had a similar experience with logic puzzles and also learned through testing what props were durable enough to be in the final product (tiny treasure boxes for his pirate-themed game, sadly, did not make the cut).
Pulling the Pieces Together
Figuring out what props and puzzles don’t work is only half of what creators get out of play testing. The process also helps them map how well the puzzles fit into the overall story of the game. For The Werewolf Experiment, for example, most puzzle answers are used to help solve one of the meta-puzzles of the game. Rubin and Patel mapped out the connections between the puzzles and tested to make sure there was minimal bottlenecking and they had a diverse array of puzzles to solve. “We wanted to do a real mix of puzzles not just in terms of easy versus hard, but also puzzles that different types of people would get,” Rubin explains.
And people are excited about the idea of an escape room you can do at home. As more and more of these games come onto the market, more and more people experience the surprise and excitement these games bring. Try one at your next family get together (after all, if you can’t escape from your boorish Uncle Ted, you can at least escape from a mad scientist or a serial killer or whatever story your game sets up) or even on a Friday night with people you like. Either way, the game’s creators have spent hundreds of hours ensuring you’ll have a memorable experience, even if you start the game not knowing what Filigree in Shadow means.