Roller coasters are fun, but I’ll take a nice, slow, methodical dark ride over a coaster any day of the week. Any ride that puts me in a boat or train or some kind of tiny car and surrounds me with singing robots going about their unending daily routine will earn my love, and the best of the best rank among the greatest pieces of art in the theme park industry. Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Sindbad’s Storybook Village, Monster Mansion: they’re why I love theme parks in the first place.
I’ve ridden all manner of dark rides, but I’d never seen anything like Meow Wolf’s Kaleidoscape before, at least not in a theme park. Like Meow Wolf’s building-sized installations in Vegas, Denver and Santa Fe, Kaleidoscape is an inspired mix of abstract visuals, ambient music, and sci-fi mumbo jumbo about quantum physics and interdimensional travel. Oh, and you can shoot things, too. If your local regional amusement park let a world famous arts collective redesign their old spook house into an immersive psychedelic experience, it would probably feel a lot like Kaleidoscape—and that’s because that’s precisely what this is. Elitch Gardens, Denver’s downtown fun park whose roots stretch back to 1890, turned the drawing board over to Meow Wolf, who then proceeded to refract it through their distinctive artistic sensibilities and create something truly unexpected.
Meow Wolf requests no filming or photography during Kaleidoscape, so here’s the last thing you see before boarding.
It all starts with a cosmic egg. Or maybe THE Cosmic Egg? The first thing you see on the ride is a large, glowing white egg alone in a pitch black room; its shell cracks, and a tiny spark of light floats out and guides you into the uncertain future. The story, as it is, concerns itself less with concrete statements than with impressionistic images that seem to defy the most basic laws of physics. With its medley of day-glo colors, retrofuturistic space imagery, and esoteric, almost mystical approach to storytelling, Kaleidoscape is a headtrip you can ride a small train through—a custom-made freakout that wraps up within three minutes.
The rooms that follow try to disorient you not through motion—this is a slow, stately dark ride with no spinning or sudden drops—but through the neon drone sensory overload that is Meow Wolf’s calling card. Household objects explode into quantum madness, existing on every plane and in every direction at once. Eldritch mutants that bridge the natural and synthetic shiver and shake as your vehicle passes, and a cluster of formerly mundane household objects, now remade by the dimensional warping power of the Cosmic Egg, twist above you like a cyclone. The whole time you can “shoot” at your surroundings with quantum-powered Conglomatrons attached to your vehicle; I could never quite tell how this impacted the environment, though, and after finding it to be a distraction from the ride’s visuals during my first trip, I left the gun in the holster on my three subsequent journeys.
As with a lot of pop art, Kaleidoscape (and Meow Wolf’s work in general) is less interested in what it’s trying to say than in how it’s trying to say it. It wants to wow you with amazing images while tossing out enough deep-sounding scientific and philosophical concepts to make you think about… something. Obviously it lacks the depth and overwhelming scope of Meow Wolf installations like Omega Mart or Denver’s own Convergence Station, but the straightforward order of a ride gives it a clearer narrative throughline than those gargantuan exhibits, and it still has the sinister edge found in those larger pieces. It’s a minor work by Meow Wolf, but might be the most purely enjoyable thing they’ve ever done; all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the view, without worrying about missing a hidden room or dealing with cramped spaces filled with strangers.
Kaleidoscape is a true anomaly for American amusement parks. It’s not banking on thrills, nostalgia, or movie tie-ins, but on the unique artistic vision of its creators. It’s a reminder that designers can do more with a dark ride—artistically, narratively, emotionally—than they can with a roller coaster, while also creating something that far more people can safely ride. A well-made dark ride is the artistic peak of the theme park, and you’ve never seen one as striking as Kaleidoscape before.
Meow Wolf’s Kaleidoscape is at Elitch Gardens Theme Park in downtown Denver. Their installation Convergence Station is nearby; maybe make a day of it?
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.