By Hilary Danailova
The residents of Owatonna, Minn., got an extra Christmas present last year – a brand-new, state-of-the-art laser tag arena, unveiled in late December inside the three-year-old Spare Time Entertainment Center. Residents of this city an hour south of Minneapolis can work off those holiday calories by chasing each other through a sound-enhanced, strobe-lit haunted forest, all while wielding glow-in-the-dark lasers.
“This is the main growth vehicle for our center,” said Scott Hutchinson, the general manager at Spare Time Entertainment, which already boasted a popular bowling facility and an upscale pub-style dining area. Hutchinson explained that while bowling is still the main attraction, the new arena – which fits 24 players at a time for 15-minute sessions – aims to be a premium venue for birthday parties and team events.
So far, the local response has been tremendous, Hutchinson said. “The community has been very enthusiastic about our laser tag,” he added. “It’s been overwhelming – way better than we expected.”
That’s because the Haunted Forest is far more than just a place to run around and let off steam. To create and execute the complex, Spare Time turned to Central Florida-based designer Douglas Wilkerson, whose firm, Studio 41b Immersive Attractions, creates custom environments for every laser tag arena. When Wilkerson traveled to Southern Minnesota to meet Spare Time’s owners and devise a concept, he was immediately inspired by both the area’s rural beauty and the local mystery surrounding an abandoned summer camp, Skunk Hollow, which was rumored to be haunted. Studio 41b in turn referred Hutchinson to Laser Blast, which Hutchinson said is a leader in the industry with the best equipment on the market.
Headquartered in Lake Wales, just south of Disney World, Studio 41b is “heavily influenced by theme park design and the use of storytelling as our basis for all our projects,” said Wilkerson, who is also a principal in Winter Park-based Dynamic Designs & Associates. “We never build the same concept twice. We create a new story for each project, and try to get the client involved.” For Spare Time’s laser tag arena, the initial story idea came out of the Minnesotans’ obvious love for nature and their wooded surroundings, he explained. “This gave me the idea of building the story around something outdoors,” Wilkerson said. “All of our stories must include three key elements: a specific place, a villain and a mission.”
Wilkerson found those narrative elements in the mysterious Skunk Hollow camp site. Tucked deep in the northern woods, Skunk Hollow was the stuff of local lore. Stories abounded of strange alien sightings, serial abductions, even the disappearance of authorities sent to investigate. That was just the intrigue Wilkerson needed: for the Spare Time arena, laser-armed guests venture into that spooky forest to take a crack at solving the mystery.
This backstory explains why the Haunted Forest is designed as “an obstacle course, like running in a forest,” said Hutchinson. “It reflects our area very well. We are a rural area, so a lot of people can relate to it.”
To make the Haunted Forest a reality, Wilkerson’s team invested several months of intensive labor (the average time to design a custom arena is eight to 10 weeks, he said). The process kicks off with a creative session involving four to six designers, who brainstorm and collectively approve a written narrative. “We created a unique story and mood board based on this concept,” said Brad Czachur, Studio 41b’s director of operations. Out of that meeting come a series of artistic renderings and arena floor plans that elaborate the story idea, he added, explaining, “With each design, we challenge ourselves to create a believable environment while still accommodating the game dynamics of laser tag.”
The environment they came up with is believable enough to send shivers of excitement down the spines of all who enter. Apart from the visual theming, “for this project, we integrated lighting and audio effects packages that enhance the experience for the players,” said Czachur. Wilkerson explained that Studio 41b designed a series of tactile triggers, in which players’ footsteps set off spooky sounds – barking dogs, alien voices, growling bears – that keep the guest on edge.
The company collaborated with Laser Blast on the trigger technology for sounds and alien voices that are set off by breaking an infrared beam. Even the smallest details were addressed, for example making sure the sounds of dogs barking can be heard from right behind a guest. Wilkerson said his company also mixed the soundtrack with Laser Blast’s Mike Ewald, and that the two companies experienced a great collaboration. “Everyone used their gifts and abilities and each company’s technology” to make it [the project] happen, he said.
“Our system controls all of the special effects – the lighting, the audio triggers that are built into the arena,” said Ewald, who is the sales director at Laser Blast. “We have a soundtrack that goes with it – little alien sounds, trees that fall into the woods, and it kind of accelerates as you go through the game. Toward the end of the game, these effects go off more and more.”
The grand finale is a 30-second period with fire, lightning strobes, sounds of an alien invasion and a crash landing sound. “Spare Time and Studio 41b all tied it together to make a wonderful experience,” Ewald said.
The movie-style soundtrack plays with a storm sequence layered over the music so visitors feel a storm coming with low rumbles of distant thunder, the crackle of lightning, and the whoosh of wind blowing through trees. “We included strobes to help feel the lightning, and awesome subwoofers that make the place rattle when the thunder rolls,” Wilkerson added, referring to a professional-quality sound system. Throw in the pitch-dark of a laser tag arena, the eerie glow of the lasers, and the confounding maze design, and visitors are all but immersed in a Hitchcock horror film.
With that vision in mind, the arena concept moved from written story to the layout and design phases, then to an engineering team who drew up a plan. “Many people have their hands on a project like this – from designers to engineers to CNC operators [who handle computer-operated industrial equipment] to muralists,” said Wilkerson. “It’s quite a process.”
Czachur, who oversaw many of the artistic details involved in the visual scheme, said one challenge involved making sure the designs were eye-catching in the darkened ambiance of a laser tag arena. “Besides carefully planned artistic design decisions, we utilize paint with the highest UV pigment concentration, making it extremely sensitive to UV lighting,” said Czachur, who called it “the brightest paint on the market.” His team also installed those UV lighting fixtures in a strategic fashion to maximize the intensity of the paint.
Aside from creating art in the dark, Wilkerson said the biggest challenge of designing an effective space like the Haunted Forest is the balance between visual aesthetics and the logistics of play. “We have to figure out a way to not only make the arena look cool, but play fairly,” said Wilkerson. A well-designed arena, he explained, affords all the players equal advantage without favoring either side. “Fortunately, we have a great design team who love what they do and always find a way to make it work.”
Fairness in play is an emphasis at Spare Time, said Scott Hutchinson, who explained that all players undergo a pre-game instruction session to ensure a good time for all. Every player receives a list of “do’s and don’ts,” then raises the right hand and pledges to play safe and have fun. Fun, of course, is the point – which is why Hutchinson expects the Haunted Forest to be a winner with children’s birthday parties, festivities for the local softball teams, and other organized outings that Spare Time will promote with value packages. Given the arena’s success thus far, Hutchinson said he envisions additional facilities with an experiential theme, such as a rock-climbing wall.
Highly customized, immersive laser tag arenas have proven to be big money makers, confirmed Wilkerson, explaining why his firm invests so much effort to make each project unique. “We get guests coming back for more. We wanted to bring something fresh to the laser tag experience.” Judging from the crowds dashing through the Haunted Forest, the approach has paid off.