When I first saw Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka sing "Come with me and you'll be in a a world of pure imagination," I was all in. The idea of edible candy mushrooms and "you can even eat the dishes" was the stuff of dreams. My little brothers and I, and even my parents, never missed the annual television airing of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though my brothers would have been sucked up the chocolate river or declared bad eggs pretty early on, I was a Charlie and I believed there was a reward for being good, kind and following the rules.
I think I have passed on those beliefs to my kids, who at 17 and 21 are now well on their way to being their own people. There aren't many opportunities anymore to do something engaging and wholesome with my grown kids, so when I was invited to a media preview of the interactive pop-up Candytopia here in Houston, I thought this could be a fun experience for a teen, college senior and woman of a certain age.
Our childish excitement was marred only a little bit by the hell that is CityCentre parking. The pandemic is well and truly over at this shopping and dining destination. With the Studio Movie Grill and lunchtime shoppers, the only parking available was on the roof of the parking garage. That would not be a bad thing in itself if it weren't for the numerous cars and pedestrians encountered on the way to the top.
Once parked, we headed to the Candytopia venue. Inside, our group was met by two young people in white coveralls. The QR code Sugar Rush was explained, rules were set out (don't eat the displays, they're lacquered) and we were encouraged to dance and yell at various times. Then, what to our wondering eyes should appear? Tick Tock was his name, a young man in top hat and wig who must be a young thespian from a nearby high school. I was impressed with his vocal qualities, having been a drama freak myself. He had great energy and relished his role and giving surprise high-fives. His wife, a wee slip of a gal in a fairy-like outfit gave us a little sass and she too seemed to inhabit her part.
We were led into a room that Anglophiles like myself dream of. Looking very much like a library in an English country house, the faux clocks on the wall gave it a steam punk feel as well. We were introduced to Elfira, the large candy dragon who, not surprisingly, was unable to muster the energy to breathe fire at us. Tick Tock and wife encouraged us to yell for more candy. We were rewarded with a clock descending from the ceiling filled with chocolates. Pretty magical, I must say.
Next up was a room with swings, candy mushrooms and a large, anthropomorphic tree in the middle. Though resembling an oak tree with its oversized acorns, the tree also held domes that guests could slip under and be met with jungle sounds. There were comfortable swings for lounging but no one really lounges when candy is on the line. We each grabbed one of the caramel apple lollipops to enjoy through the rest of the exhibit. They were quite tasty and I wish I had grabbed an extra one for later.
We wandered through various rooms enjoying the bright colors and creative designs. There's an underwater ocean-themed room complete with candy shark and seahorses as well as an art exhibit featuring recognizable masterpieces like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Van Gogh's Starry Night. Famous faces also hang on the walls such as the artist formerly known as Prince and, fittingly, Gene Wilder in his role of Willy Wonka. Each "painting" has a museum label with its title and a description of the candy from which the art is made, including the number of pieces. The huge Egyptian pharoah sphinx in the center is a wonder to behold.
Candytopia also allows for some sensory experiences including an inflatable tunnel in which we were a little hesitant to walk through. Another local journalist and I decided to let my kids go through first because it looked like a tight fit and I am a bit claustrophobic. However, it was like walking through a tunnel of pillows that expanded with the body's motion. There was also a lighted, multi-colored tunnel that may remind Houstonians of James Turrells' installation at MFAH, The Light Inside", albeit a wonky version of it. Or should we say a "Wonka Version".
No Candyland fantasy would be complete without unicorns and the ones at Candytopia share a room with flying (and confetti-farting) pigs and lots of confetti. Part of the fun is having the confetti blown off of your person by the staff. With electric blowers, not their mouths.
The final room is a marshmallow pit that is definitely not in keeping with COVID guidelines. My whole family is vaccinated but I felt anxious as my grown kids lolled about in the foam marshmallows. Unfortunately, it was also one of their favorite things about the exhibit and I watched unnerved as the both of them sank so deep into the pit that I could barely see the tops of their heads. There is a staff member who feeds marshmallows into a hole in the wall as guests are warned to cover their ears before the unicorn cannon explodes. It makes a pretty loud boom as it shoots foam marshmallows across the pit.
As with any museum exhibit or interactive experience, there's a gift shop at the end. Plush unicorns, pink tee-shirts and of course, candy, can be purchased to remember the experience. The QR code Sugar Rush also allows attendees to download the photos staff take of them over the course of the event and they will be emailed for free. Equipped with our phones, we felt we had enough photos of ourselves and the employees were always offering to take photos for people.
As for the candy, some previous attendees complain that there isn't as much as they would like. Each room has a treasure chest of various candies ranging from candy bracelets to Pixie Stix to Twizzlers. There are signs that say "Please take a few". If you are a rule follower like myself, you probably won't emerge with a whole bunch of treats. If you are a "I paid for this" kind of person, you might make out pretty well. I wish they gave out little party favor bags for the loot. Instead, I had to put the candy for both my son and myself in my purse. Unwisely, he put a couple of chocolates in his jeans pocket. That did not turn out well.
Perhaps a candy drop at the end would be a fun bonus, maybe from a giant pinata. Or even a small end-of-the- tour swag bag of candy would make guests feel more like they got their money's worth.
I personally would have liked to see just a little more interaction from the staff. The young people working were very helpful and friendly but apart from the opening crew, the rest didn't have much more to do than help with photos. The beginning was full of energy and set the scene for an adventure. A few more characters interspersed throughout would keep the story going. Maybe a snobby docent in the art museum describing the paintings. That would be fun.
Candytopia offers grown ups and kids alike a chance to wander in a technicolor world of magic and discovery. While little children will enjoy it, it almost seems tailor-made for Instagram teens and older folks who need a break from the chaos of the real world. As Gene Wilder sings in the film, "There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination." Candytopia allows everyone to enjoy the designed imagination of others as well as their own.
Candytopia Houston runs through September 6, 2021.
822 Town and Country Boulevard
Kids 4-12: $20
Children under 3: free
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