Explore Otherworld
By Erica Thompson

Explore Otherworld

Experience the Columbus-based, immersive art installation that's a science-fiction playground

Otherworld in Columbus

Leave the virtual reality headset at home. There are other ways to feel like you’re inside of a video game. At Otherworld, the 32,000-square foot immersive art installation on the East Side, you can physically crawl inside a “Space Bloopers” arcade game, first taking in the colorful, electric interior of the machine, and then emerging in a sea of stars.

That’s just one of nearly 50 rooms of mixed-reality magic, generated by large-scale structures, projectors, LED lights and the creative minds of over 40 artists. Open since May 2019, Otherworld is fast-becoming a world-class attraction, mentioned alongside other sites like Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, and smaller, pop-up installations in cities like New York and Austin.

Though recently named one the world’s coolest places by Time for Kids, Otherworld is also the perfect place for adult visitors to tap into their child-like curiosity. (General admission is $22, while children 3-12 and seniors get in for $18 and $20, respectively.)

“We really wanted Otherworld to be a place for everyone,” said Operations Director John Umland. “We wanted to create that experience of people escaping into a new place and being an active part of the experience.”

The setting is the fictional Otherworld Industries, a tech company that develops “alternate realm tourism.” The story line casts visitors as beta testers exploring abandoned laboratories and eccentric creatures. There are some clues in video diaries and on the laptop of the former Otherworld Industries CEO, but the rest depends on your imagination.

In many brilliant ways, Otherworld creates familiar, even nostalgic scenes and turns them on their head. For example, a room resembling a cluttered old basement, complete with a toy “bubble mower,” doubles as a museum of creative sculptures featuring VHS tapes, paint cans and Christmas lights.

In another room, a dusty dressmaker’s shop has been untouched for so long, it’s hard to tell where the cobwebs end and the high-fashion threads begin (and the furry insects aren’t scared of you). A cozy office appears pretty harmless until you notice that a gaping hole in the wall leads to another realm.

Of course, there are more fantastical — and soothing — spaces. You can take a nap in a bean bag chair inside a cave laden with crystals, or on the tongue of a fuzzy, blue, horned creature named Ms. Schmuffly. It’s easy to drift off sitting on a rock in the central, breathtaking, “FernGully”-esque room.

Be sure to pay attention to the music, an eclectic soundtrack that can be trance- or dance-inducing. If you visit on the right night, you may catch a performance by a DJ, which only enhances the atmosphere.

“We always knew we wanted to try to find as many ways as possible to use the space,” said Umland, who also mentioned people have requested to rent Otherworld for weddings. “We’re going to keep trying to find different ways (to) connect people to art.”

It can be tempting to walk through Otherworld as if it is a haunted house, but the creators want you to run toward, not away, from everything you discover. Touch, climb and open everything. There are puzzles to solve and secret passages to find.

“The more inquisitive you are, the better experience you’ll have,” Umland said. “So when you see something that makes you wonder, ‘Why am I seeing that?’ or ‘I wonder what that does?’, lean in and tap into your inner explorer.”

For more fun this #WinterInOhio, check out #OhioFindItHere at Ohio.org.

About the Author

Erica Thompson is a features reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. Her articles have also appeared on Billboard.com. She has been awarded by the Press Club of Cleveland and the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting.