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Two Bit Circus, The Carnival Painted With Pixels

Two Bit Circus, a new 37,000 s.f. “Micro-Amusement Park(™),” opened to the public September 7th. Located in Los Angeles’ thriving downtown arts district, the new carnival-themed high tech attraction is the brainchild of Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, who created STEAM Carnival, a high tech electronic learning festival that popped up in LA in 2014 and San Francisco in 2016. Two Bit Circus is a multi-faceted celebration of the new wave of out-of-home entertainment: custom escape rooms called Story Rooms, VR Cabanas (private rooms), VRcades, reimagined arcade games, free roam VR, and live interactive game shows. I spent some time before the opening with the founders who were electric with excitement as workers put the finishing touches on their vision, which can accommodate over 800 patrons at once.

As we toured each of the distinct “districts” within the park, I couldn’t help thinking about what it was like to take a trip on the pre-opening Disneyland railroad, with Walt as the engineer, conductor, and tour guide. The other overwhelming impression was how tastefully, imaginatively, and humorously the whole Circus has been assembled. There are no elephants, but there is a robot bartender and a coherence to the vision. “We take old school and throw pixels at it,” co-founder and mad inventor (it’s on his business card) Gradman told me. Unsurprisingly, he has a colorful history as a circus performer, professional whistler, roboticist and inventor.

Brent Bushnell (L), Founder and CEO of Two Bit Circus, with co-Founder and Mad Scientist Eric Gradman.

Bushnell is a bit more constrained than Gradman, but not much. He uses phrases like “multiplex of interactive experiences” that suggest he’s been talking to a lot of money people and journalists. He wears 3D printed bowties and looks kind of good in them. Bushnell and Gradman emphasize Two Bit Circus’ meta-story, which will unfold in pieces that guests must puzzle through over successive visits. Where did this place come from? Who are these people? “You have no idea how deep the rabbit hole is,” Bushnell said. “Two Bit Circus will be a long-running immersive theater production where the actors and audience share the stage. There are secret rooms, secret hallways, and rewards for the curious.” The founders say the park is filled with walkaround characters who may mysteriously entice guests to go on an adventure.

Two Bit Circus is free. You can walk in and just watch people play, check out the scene, grab a drink and watch the lovestruck omnisexual robot bartender, Guillermo del Pouro, flirt with customers while he makes drinks. As the process of mixing the drink takes over two minutes, del Pouro has plenty of time to work his charms.

Near the front entrance of the Park is the “Button Wall,” sort of Twister meets DDR, but turned on its side. Gradman described it as “sure-fire intergenerational fun”. People punch and kick the buttons. Many end up throwing their entire body against them.

Gradman and his Button Wall.

The Story Rooms are high production value escape rooms. I’ve seen some amazing ones. Last year I wrote about New York’s long-running theatrical escape room “Paradiso”. This exceeds that high standard. By a lot. In “Space Squad”, you and your teammates must cooperate to run the bridge of a starship. “Lost City” has a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vibe, complete with an ore cart on mining tracks, an ancient Aztec temple, and a real live mummy. The sets for these adventures are flat out amazing. The kind of magic rarely seen outside Hollywood. Because escape room adventures run over 30 minutes, advance reservations are recommended. There is no way you can see and do everything Two Bit Circus has to offer in one night.

“Lost City” has the most elaborate set ever seen in an escape room. I think.

Work together to control the starship in Two Bit Circus’ “Space Squad” Story Room experience.

The reimagined midway is a mix of nostalgia, deconstruction, and surprisingly physical activities. “Media Pollution” is a movie/tv themed set for selfies. “Balloon Pop” makes players match colored balls with colored targets. “Rail Race,” appears to be a traditional midway game train racing competition, the kind where spraying water in a clown’s mouth moves toy trains. “A race? A race would be easy. It would be expected. We could have done a race, we could do an awesome race, but no. We added our special sauce, sprinkled pixels on an old idea, and created an impromptu opportunity for people to form teams of two to pump handcart handles, which have back EMF resistance,” Gradman said. “You really have to pump. This embodies our philosophy. You play with other people. Everything here is built to bring people together.” And make them sweat.

A unique selfie opportunity on Two Bit Circus’ reimagined midway.

The object of the game is to hit the right colored virtual balloons with the right colored balls. By the end of the game, I was sweating.

You’ll need a partner and brute strength to overcome the EMF feedback to win the race.

There’s also a lot of VR. “Raft” from Starbreeze studios, 15-minute haunted river simulation, free-roaming virtual reality from AsterionVR (France). Hologate, a four-player VR experience, has a prominent position, as does “Battlezone” VR’s cab-based simulation, enhanced with motion seats from D-Box, right next to the original arcade version. Leaderboards encourage competition. There’s a VRcade, too, just like the ones popping up in malls around the country, which allows guests to enjoy an evolving, curated selection of high-end PC VR.

Hologate VR is one of many VR offerings.

A custom multiplayer VR Battlezone is featured along with the original arcade game.

Club 01 is Two Bit Circus’ 100 seat, interactive gameshow theater. Shows are about an hour long, and reservations are recommended. Every cafe table has a touchscreen console that will allow the audience members seated there to communicate with the host and other guests. The venue will feature bar trivia, interactive performances, deconstructed gameshows, and a 100 person escape room called “Escape from Werewolf Village” from SCRAP. “Imagine that people come to LA to be in the audience of a game show. How lame is that?” Gradman pointed out. “You come all the way across the country, you want to be in the show.”

Club O1 will feature live interactive game shows with interactive consoles at the tables.

To Bushnell, one of the of the most exciting aspects of Two Bit Circus is that he’ll never be done building it. “We want Two Bit Circus to be a platform for third-party developers, to give them a way to test and market their interactive products.” To encourage this, Bushnell plans to open a “Secret Inventor’s Lab” to cultivate creators. There will be classes for developers, artists, and builders. “Artists, agencies, programmers, all create amazing installations at places like Comi-Con that are seen for three days and then thrown in the garbage. This is a great opportunity to expose a bigger audience to those activations.”

Two Bit Circus can accommodate over 1,000 guests.

While it is by far the most cutting-edge, original and compelling, Two Bit Circus is following two other large-scale (30,000 s.f. and bigger) urban entertainment centers in North America, Dave and Buster’s (D&B) and Rec Room. D&B is a 114 location chain of family entertainment centers (FECs) that features a full restaurant, sports bar, and high tech arcade. They recently added their own theme-park ride, “Jurassic World VR”, a four-person VR simulation on a motion platform, to their entertainment offerings. The Rec Room is a chain of FECs with bar/restaurants owned by Canada’s Cineplex Entertainment. First opened in Edmonton in 2016, there are now five locations in Canada, with openings planned in London elsewhere in 2018. Rec Room also features 3rd party attractions like The VOID free roam VR, and has an auditorium in their locations which can be used for events, concerts and other live events. Many think the mall of the future will be about entertainment, not retail. Bushnell says other Two Bit Circus locations are underway, and under wraps for now.

The soft opening at Two Bit Circus is underway.

The cost of visiting Two Bit Circus is variable based on what you play, eat and drink, but the company estimates most guests will spend about twenty-five dollars on food and beverages and spend an equal amount on the games and attractions. It open to the public since September 7th, 2018. Reservations are recommended for escape rooms, free roam VR, and Club 01. Two Bit Circus 634 Mateo St., Los Angeles.

Upscale corndogs. Yes, please!

This post was originally featured on on August 22, 2018

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