Leon Swain uttered a choice word after liftoff and held on for dear life as the hot air balloon rose.
The balloon basket in which he stood, crouched and then dropped down to the floor looked real enough. You could feel the heat from the propane, the sway of the basket and the bump when it hit a canyon wall.
Swain knew full well he was having a virtual reality experience in the lobby at Meow Wolf, just steps from the Float café and gift shop. The balloon never rose more than a couple of inches off the floor.
But his mind was convinced otherwise.
“My legs are still shaking,” said Swain, who was wearing a virtual reality headset, several minutes after the ride ended.
Swain was visiting from Maryland and planned to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which kicks off this weekend. The Meow Wolf experience convinced him he wasn’t ready for a real-life balloon ride.
“It was scary,” he said of Meow Wolf’s new virtual reality installation, which brought the spirit of Balloon Fiesta to the immersive arts and entertainment company’s fabled House of Eternal Return exhibit in Santa Fe. “It was going too high, up into the mountains. You feel like you’re way up in the sky.”
Meow Wolf launched the hot air balloon installation last week in collaboration with Dallas-based Janimation VR, which created the VR experience in 2017. Janimation leased the installation to Meow Wolf for six months.
The virtual environment is a mountainous canyon setting with a large dinosaur skeleton, a small ghost town, birds flying, wind turbines and a few other balloons.
“If you can imagine, we can create any environment,” Janimation CEO and founder Steve Gaçonnier said. “Volcano, Everest, Jurassic Period, into a black hole, North Pole with Santa’s Workshop.”
Meow Wolf will want to explore more out-of-this world options for the House of Eternal Return and other exhibit sites the company has in the works in Las Vegas, Nev., Denver, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., said Amanda Clay, vice president of attraction operations.
“The canyon is fine,” Clay said. “What if you can get into a balloon and fly into outer space?”
The company is considering longer leases or purchasing its own VR attractions, whether from Janimation or other VR purveyors, she said.
“It’s about being able to fully immerse yourself,” Clay said. “It starts to blur the walls of what is real and what isn’t.”
Clay calls it “mixed reality” more than virtual reality because passengers are in a real hot air balloon basket and can control the balloon with the gas lever overhead “and lean over the basket wall,” she said.
The 3½-minute virtual flight costs $10 and is open to passengers age 12 and older. These are solo rides for one person at time.
Janimation installed two balloon experiences over the summer in Ocean City, N.J., and has taken other installations to trade shows in Barcelona and Dallas. Two more will go live in Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev., later this month, Gaçonnier said.
“We’re thrilled that a hot air balloon has decided to land at Meow Wolf,” Clay said. “Watching guests take ‘rides’ is pretty fun to see, and some are coming off of the experience saying it checks off a real hot air balloon ride from their bucket list.”