Call me a fuddy-duddy, but back in my day, arcade games were for kids, and bars for adults. . But Millennial alert – these days, adults play games. And because they still like a drink, most tend to do their gaming on the lounge at home. Boring.
At Downtown LA's Two Bit Circus, however, big kids don't have to sacrifice their Friday Night Out for some augmented reality. Coined the "World's First Micro-Amusement Park", this playground of the future blurs the lines between physical and digital entertainment, combining old school carnival games, new technology and interactive theatre.
Add to that a restaurant serving reimagined "carny fare", and a full-service bar (with drinks made by real-life bartenders as well as a flirtatious robot named Gearmo del Pouro), and a good time is pretty much guaranteed.
Two Bit Circus is the creation of "a band of mad scientists, roboticists, visual artists and storytellers", who, from 2012, created custom-built games and steampunk robotic inventions for a travelling roadshow.
The desire for a permanent home, however, led the carnival in 2018 to Downtown LA's booming Arts District, where an abandoned 4000 square-metre warehouse was converted into an interactive entertainment space supporting up to 700 guests a night.
The unremarkable exterior is a clever ruse – enter the doors, and you are transported into another dimension, Japanese game show meets Stranger Things on steroids, with the fairy-lit cacophony of Sideshow Alley leading to a rabbit hole of alternate realities.
Behind secret doors, four Story Rooms – often booked out up to six weeks in advance – whisk three to seven players on immersive adventures into imagined landscapes, finding treasure in a lost Aztec city, escaping werewolves in a spooky village or defending the galaxy. Each mission is a matter of teamwork; and for those addicted to the challenge, new quests are constantly being rolled out.
Meanwhile, strangers become allies as they combat zombies, robots and dragons in Virtual Reality zones, latest-technology 90fsp headsets transporting squealing, swearing players into an adrenaline-pumping, hyper-real world which is as amusing for spectators as it is for players.
Behind the closed doors of Club01, up to 100 theatre guests become part of a show, joining an interactive trivia game or a competitive wine tasting experience; while private, karaoke-style gaming cabanas are also available for groups celebrating a special occasion.
For retro-lovers, there are new takes on air hockey, Pac Man, Pong and Tron; but arguably the most fun is also the simplest – the carnival games of The Midway, where the classics of the boardwalk are reimagined with a steampunk aesthetic for the amusement of young and old. Race trains with pump-action, pop projection balloons, or destroy a building with a padded wrecking ball – the laughter and gleeful shouts of participants says it all.
But Two Bit Circus is not all beer and skittles. During the day, the facility hosts school children and community groups, teaching them about potential careers using maths, science, technology and art, with the aim of cultivating the next generation of game inventors.
And that's the crux of Two Bit Circus – that there are no limits to imagination. Or ways to have fun.
For those looking for a dark corner and an intimate chat, Two Bit Circus may not be the wisest choice – even the bar, with its plastic horse seating under a neon inverted circus tent canopy, is as audacious as its surrounds.
But for an interactive, fun night out where each member of the family can choose their own adventure, it's game on!
Julie Miller was a guest of Two Bit Circus and Los Angeles Tourism.
Entry to Two Bit Circus is free, with games ranging from $1 to $35 and an average spend of $50. Drinks and food extra. See twobitcircus.com