HBO created an entire theme park set in the American frontier, where “Westworld” fans can experience what it’s like to be a guest of the sci-fi show’s park. Actors playing the town’s residents live out elaborate storylines, and visitors interact with them as if they’re the artificially intelligent hosts from the show.
It’s like Disney’s Frontierland with gunslingers, prostitutes, and booze – lots of it.
A re-creation of the town of Sweetwater for the “‘Westworld’ Live Without Limits” experience at SXSW is the most sophisticated stunt HBO has ever attempted. The network spent the past four months refurbishing a real-life ghost town in Austin.
I had a chance to visit the “Westworld” experience for Business Insider. It blew my mind.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for “Westworld” season two.
The location of the experience is a secret. Fans who booked one of the super-exclusive appointments to visit gathered at a bar in Austin to catch a shuttle.
Before boarding, guests climbed the stairs to a rooftop bar that served as an office for Delos, the mysterious corporation behind theme-park destinations like Westworld.
A Delos “employee” dressed all in white asked my name, gave me a once-over, and said, “You’re a black hat.” Apparently, she saw more rebellious rogue than do-gooder in me.
Another employee led us to the shuttle, and we were on our way. A host aboard the bus told us there were two rules: Don’t break anything, and don’t hurt another guest or visitor.
We each received two tokens to buy alcohol from one of the town’s three saloons — including, yes, the famed Mariposa bar and brothel, where Sweetwater’s prostitutes do business.
The bus pulled off onto a dusty road. “Welcome to Westworld,” a host greeted us.
We walked through the Delos office and into a train car, like the one from the show that transports guests to Westworld. We didn’t find Teddy Flood (played by James Marsden) but met a friendly bartender instead.
When I stepped off the train, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was Sweetwater.
Production on the Westworld park began in November. A crew of 40 people worked for the past five weeks assembling the set, from scenic design and construction to landscaping.
HBO hired a cast of 60 actors, six stuntpeople, five bands, and six horses to bring “Westworld” to life. A script for the 90-minute experience is more than 440 pages long.
But the experience is what you make of it. I approached a pair of women who asked me whether I was interested in attending a meeting of suffragists tomorrow night.
I told them I was “mighty delighted” to join their cause. When they said a monetary donation would be appreciated, I offered one of my drink tokens in lieu of cash.
My years of playing Dungeons and Dragons kicked into gear, and I took up a Southern accent for the rest of the experience. I only wish I had thought up a character name.
Guests were free to explore Sweetwater at their own pace. At the Mariposa Saloon, women dressed in corsets fawned over the guests, while cowboys played a heated card game.
A player piano played a song from the show. The sheet music was splattered with blood, just like in the trailer for season two of “Westworld.” The hosts didn’t notice.
Guests collected personalised letters from the post office.
I received an anonymous letter from a fellow guest in Sweetwater warning me that Westworld is not what it seems. “Tell the others,” it said. “This world is a lie.”
At the cemetery, the preacher looked on as guests dug up a grave marked for Dolores Abernathy (played by Evan Rachel Wood), looking for clues to unlock one of the park’s mysteries.
There’s a series of numbers hidden throughout the park that, when combined, unlock a secret laboratory where Delos employees are working on a new type of host.
I never found the room, but images on Instagram reveal the employees were manufacturing a “drone host,” an artificial being that assaults Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Wright) in the trailer.
We don’t know much else about the drone hosts, but such an elaborate staging of one in the “Westworld” park experience suggests they could become key players in season two.
The drone host wasn’t the only new character we spotted. See someone familiar?
A samurai patrolled the town, mostly keeping out of sight and never saying a word.
In the season-one finale, we learn that Westworld isn’t the only Delos Destinations park.
In it, Maeve (Thandie Newton) comes across a lab where people wearing traditional samurai costumes fight in battle. A sign marked “SW” hints at the possibility of a samurai world.
HBO pulled out all the stops to make this elaborate and playful experience at SXSW.
Here’s me (black hat) reacting during a shootout in the town square.
The most magical part of the experience was the commitment of its actors. No one broke character during my two-hour visit, and they improvised interactions gracefully.
When it was all over, Delos crew members came to remove the bodies of the hosts “killed in action.”
In the aftermath of the shootout, the hosts shuddered as they were “rebooted.”
I asked a host what the commotion was about. “What commotion?” she said — just like a host in “Westworld” would say.
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