Story Walks: Experiential Game Changers

Published by: Jeff Day

This season, I had the chance to attend the Detroit Zoo's 2017 Wild Lights experience. Bluewater was able to provide many activations in the experience walk. It was awesome, and inspired me to talk about a modern emergent phenomenon of a not so new way of storytelling.


Story walks, loosely defined, are destinations that intermingle physical journeys with story lines. At the risk of over defining, the physical journey doesn’t have to be a long one, but it could be. Some of the early ones might have included spiritual walks like Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, Mount Kailash Yatra’s path to Nirvana in the Himalayas, or an aboriginal walkabout in the Australian Outback. In these examples there is a common thread that the story of the journey accompanies the journey itself. Our definition provides both context and framework.

Story walks are emotive. They are designed to assist in some type of personal discovery. Passing through spaces that are amplified with nature or narrative cues, participants get something in return for their investment. It’s a critical part of the experience. What makes a story walk so compelling is that it is designed to leverage all the senses simultaneously. Sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste come into play in a well-constructed story walk.

Today, I’m seeing the emergence of new kinds of story walks that leverage tools of the past. These walks are deeply emotive, but they use modern techniques and tools to bring stories quickly to life in incredible ways. Some of these tools include audio, video, lighting, and interactive elements. The best ones are done at night to accentuate the play on lights, but they don’t have to just be. What makes them great is the imaginative and playful way in which they take you on a journey utilizing these integrated tools.

To help illustrate the point, I’d like to outline three experiences to describe better what I mean.

Detroit Wild Lights

Zoos across the United States have been almost silently activating their spaces during holidays over the last several years. In part to take advantage of off-season traffic declines in colder climate areas, the walks consistently center around holidays and year-end. Detroit’s experience used more than five million LED twinkle lights, light bars, projection mapping, and reactive building lighting to wow guests. More than 230 lit animal sculptures entertained guests. The story, then, is not the wild life, but the wild lights. I believe it helped capture imagination and a new way of seeing the “wild.”

There’s now a reader’s choice competition for this! According to 10-BEST, the top 10 Zoo Lights in the country were as follows:

  1. Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo
  2. Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo
  3. U.S Bank Wild Lights at the Saint Louis Zoo
  4. Zoo Lights at the Phoenix Zoo
  5. Christmas at the Zoo at the Indianapolis Zoo
  6. Lights Before Christmas at the Riverbanks Zoo
  7. Wild lights at the Columbus Zoo
  8. PNC Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo
  9. Electric Safari at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
  10. Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo

I’m curious about the net positive economic impact these Zoo lights have had in their local communities, but speaking only for myself, Detroit was simply electric (pun intended). I’m already excited about next year!

Tonga Lumina

Montreal-based Moment Factory has done an amazing job putting together a set of truly inspirational walks all over Canada. I had a chance to see Tonga Lumina last year at Mont Tremblant in Quebec. This experience starts with each guest receiving interactive amulets beacons and a ride up the resort’s chair lift. It was mid-summer, but the story leveraged the resources already there in what might have been otherwise un-used space.

As you arrive at the top of the lift you are guided on a mystical walk through the woods in search of Tonga, the Rock Giant. It was spectacular and magical. What really made it for me beyond the lights and interactive elements was the use of audio. The Moment Factory team produced a musical score that carries the story wherever you are in the journey. Now there’s a great example of using new tools for physical, emotive storytelling. 

The Moment Factory team has created several walks now that are, in my opinion, must see experiences.

Field Trip to Mars

This walk is more of a drive than a walk. But the core premise of the story walk still carries. Addressing the tremendous opportunity to educate students better of what a Mars experience would be like, the group at Framestore really went outside the box. They brought to life a group VR experience of a bus ride around Mars with incredible panache! The innovation and technical detail involved in pulling this off along with incredible graphics and realism underscores why story walks are so cool.

To understand this, you really need to hear it from the creators and see it in action! In a nutshell, once you board the bus, the screens change, and you are on the surface of Mars. What makes this journey work so well to me is the linkage they’ve achieved between real and simulated motion. When the moving bus hits a bump, or moves at a certain speed physically, this is happening in the experience as well. The net effect is a powerful and believable moment of taking a bus ride field trip on Mars. 

The story telling benefits here in the context of education are mind numbing. Can you imagine the possibilities?

Mixed reality AR/VR are now everywhere. I’ve seen quite a few cool examples, but I was really struck with the power of Karim Ben Khelifa’s world tour launch of his traveling, interactive museum. In this experience, guests are equipped with Oculus VR systems that allow them to move freely in both a physical and virtual space. Interactive exhibits that travel as touring live events create new opportunities for community and social cause exploration. 

The power here to me lies in the ability to interact directly with the combatants directly in the same way Karim did as a journalist. This story walk meets and exceeds the emotive factors many times over.

I don’t think we would have much debate now that story walks have been used for a long time! Modern story walks, however, change the experience game on many levels. First, technology advances make us crave new ways of consumption. Second, story tellers, from organizations to brands, need to understand that their listeners demand better. Their expectations have risen and the challenge of rising above the noise requires more creative thinking and problem solving. Lastly, we have an opportunity, maybe even an obligation, to tell our stories better using a more robust chest of tools. It’s an amazing time for sure! And truly it’s just beginning!

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