Inside the Illuminarium, Toronto’s new immersive art exhibit

Is it VR without the goggles? A walk-through video game? The coolest bar ever?

By Anthony Milton| Photography by Joshua Best
Inside the Illuminarium, Toronto’s new immersive art exhibit

In a heritage building nestled in the heart of the Distillery District, a brand new immersive art experience is coming to the city. Dubbed the “Illuminarium” by its operators, Illuminarium Experiences and Secret Location, it’s set to be the third installation of its kind, after others in Atlanta and Las Vegas.

Here’s the concept: much like the recent immersive Van Gogh exhibition, it’s hosted in a large room with smooth matte walls onto which animated displays, accompanied by sound effects, are beamed from ceiling-mounted laser projectors. Not only can the producers turn the room into anything they like, they can also make the graphics respond to your touch.

Its owners are still searching for the right words to describe the Illuminarium: Is it VR without the goggles? A 360-degree movie theatre? A walk-through video game? The coolest bar ever? Toronto Life met Secret Location president and co-founder Ryan Andal for a demonstration of the Illuminarium’s two opening shows: a walk on the moon, which plays every evening, and a trip through Alice in Wonderland, which plays during the day. The exhibition is permanent, and tickets are $35 for adults and $30 for youth and seniors.

Here’s a sneak preview of the yet-to-be-defined immersive exhibits.

A Walk on the Moon
A balmy Floridan sunset overlooking a space-bound rocket ready to launch.

Entry room After following a couple of friendly astronauts down a ramp into the darkness of space, visitors enter the first room: a balmy Floridian sunset overlooking a space-bound rocket. The views on the wall ahead take up guests’ entire field of vision. Music swells, but the voice of John F. Kennedy beams through: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained.”

The projections make the walls look like the cockpit of that rocket

Blasting off The scene swiftly transitions, and suddenly guests are in rocket’s cockpit. “We choose to go to the moon!” cries the president. With a great rumble, fire erupts below and the rocket soars up, over Florida, into the clouds and above the stratosphere. “I can officially welcome you to space,” says an astronaut. After a moment to appreciate the view, a door hisses open at the far side of the room.

A moon rover careens over the landscape of the moon

Walking on the moon Visitors pass through the doors into the Illuminarium’s main space, a large L-shaped hall. A waltz, “The Blue Danube,” is playing loudly, a callback to 2001: A Space Odyssey. A fully animated moonscape fills the walls and floors (the ceiling, which hosts the technical equipment, is left bare). “There are 26 4k RBG laser projectors in this space,” explains Andal. “There are 86 speakers that we’ve hidden in the walls, at ear height and up top.” A moon rover careens around the landscape. You can hear the doppler as it zooms by.

The future of the moon, which includes condo towers

The future  In a second, we jump decades into the future. The moonscape is now populated with darkly glowing buildings. The music shifts too: it’s Sting now, crooning “Walking on the Moon.” It’s all very immersive—until guests look up at the exposed brick and timber of the ceiling. “I like that duality,” says Andal. “There’s this crazy tech here, but you also get a sense of the historic building.”

The constellations projected onto the walls of the illuminarium

The constellations Sting fades out, and a choir of heavenly voices takes his place as the room goes dark again. Star by star, space returns. The constellations of the zodiac come into view, their avatars illustrated in celestial blues. “This is a popular photography moment,” says Andal.

The constellations are replaced byreplaced by shifting images of our neighbouring planets

The planets Aries and the rest fade out, replaced by shifting images of our neighbouring planets. The swirling clouds of Jupiter fill one wall. “A lot of this is pulled from photography, and we’ve just enhanced it,” notes Andal. Information cards unfold in front of each planet with key facts, and the probes we’ve sent to visit them zip by.

A spectator amid a wall of asteroids

Watch out for that rock! The scene shifts to the inside of an asteroid belt. There’s an uncanny feeling you’re observing something in 3-D. “It’s a technique called parallax,” explains Andal. “Whatever is closer to you is moving faster than objects farther away.” In one corner, two asteroids collide, sending a blast of debris in all directions. In addition to painting the space, the LIDAR cameras keep track of where each person is in the room, allowing for interactive elements. Andal says that, soon, asteroids on the floor will crumble if you step on them.

Stunning technicolour nebulae

Into the nebulae The room transitions again, and the drab grey rocks give way to stunning technicolour as nebulae—the massive clouds of space gas where stars are born—take the stage. The parallax effect shines here, making it truly feel like the iridescent clouds are coming to envelop you. “It’s a testament to how well it works that it can make you motion sick if you do it wrong,” says Andal. “Bittersweet Symphony” is playing, because of course it is.

An image of the James Webb Space Telescope

Cheers to you, space telescope One corner of the room is devoted to the James Webb Space Telescope, launched by NASA into the deep dark in 2021. An animation shows how the telescope, curled up for its launch, unfolded its honeycomb panels once it reached its destination.

Images of rockets blasting off

Back to the blast-off A digital clock appears, counting down while different rockets launch on all sides. It’s hard to take it all in at once. “We built the room in an L-shape so people are forced to move around,” says Andal. In a 360 display, there’s always something behind you.

The blue marble, aka earth

The blue marble The clock reaches zero, and we’re back in the International Space Station, zooming low over the Earth from several different vantages. “There’s something called the overview effect, where astronauts who see the Earth for the first time feel this incredible feeling of oneness,” says Andal. “That overwhelming feeling is what we want.” A section of the wall swings open, and we walk into the gift shop.

Waking Wonderland
The entrance sign for the Wonderland experience

The white rabbit A couple of minutes later, we’re brought back into the staging room, and we find it entirely transformed: instead of a rocket platform, we’re in the dimly lit drawing room of an old mansion. Before we get our bearings, an actor dressed as a white rabbit jumps out from a corner. “We’re very late!” she frets. “Late to waking Wonderland!”

The entrance room for waking wonderland

Into the tea factory The white rabbit goes off to find Anna, a young girl lost in a dream. We’re treated to a short animation, where Anna is shown grieving her departed grandmother, Alice. The whole scene was built by the Unreal video game engine, Andal explains, and is complemented by a custom soundtrack by Lights. As Anna dives through an ornate mirror, the hidden door opens behind us. “We have this moment in every experience—when you cross the threshold into fantasy,” says Andal.

A look inside the tea factory

Don’t push that button “This is the tea factory,” says Andal as we move to the next room. And boy is it ever: the walls are adorned with spinning cog wheels, bubbling cauldrons and pipes of mystery goo. Projected “buttons” on the floor activate scenes when stepped on, which include rotating teacups, popping bubbles and firing confetti cannons.

The queen of hearts, on a background of playing cards

The queen The jittery White Rabbit is joined by the haughty Queen of Hearts. If you see her, bow—and do it properly, or she will call you out. “We collaborated with Soulpepper, a theatre across the way,” says Andal. “All of the costume design was done by them.”

A grumpy, white-haired old man in a business suit at a desk is the Mad Hatter

Mad as a Bay Street executive One scene shows a grumpy white-haired old man in a business suit at a desk. He’s in command of a large robotic arm. “This is the Mad Hatter,” explains Andal. “He’s descended from madness into something worse: becoming a corporate robot. Anna manages to wake him.”

The exhibit also features smells in the form of tea carts

Smell the roses As if there weren’t enough sights and sounds, the exhibit also features smells: tea carts are stationed throughout the room, with vials of cinnamon, citrus and mint teas to sniff. Each checks off a box in an illustrated guidebook handed out to guests before the show, turning the room into a scavenger hunt.

The Mad Hatter escorts the audience out into the gift shop.

Waking up Toward the end of the room, the wall pops open again. The Mad Hatter escorts us through. “Now that we’re finally awake and my tea factory is well, I’d like us to cheers to Wonderland,” she says as we seat ourselves in a reception area outside the gift shop. “We really wanted to have a three-act structure here,” explains Andal. “At the end, you get a bit of narrative on these walls of Anna popping back to reality.”

After hours
After hours, the Illuminarium turns into a bar

If, after all that, you feel yourself needing a drink, fear not: after-hours events transform the main space into a pop-up club, with different scenes cycing across the walls. The vibe is gallery-with-a-glass-of-wine, enjoyed in space after dark or on a safari, in the jungle, under water, on a volcano or in a Blade Runner–esque model of a future Toronto. Andal says they also plan to open a smaller bar space in the building, complete with its own projector scenes.


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