Happy Place is one long horrendous Instagram backdrop that will leave you miserable and full of despair

This afternoon, I took my place in line exited to see what exactly Happy Place, which Timeout calls a pop-up funhouse for adults,” would entail. I had read about a ball pit for grownups and the promise of “standing in the middle of the world’s largest indoor confetti dome surrounded by half a million pieces of confetti” and was amped. It was going to be so fun! And, as a digital experience designer interested in designs for physical space, I was curious about the design — how so many displays would include interaction, the transitions between rooms, and how the senses would be engaged beyond just sight and sound.

The first room had a giant high heel made of candy. Cool, I guess? The next room held only inflatable trees with faces, positioned in front of wallpaper that showed those same trees with faces. I became confused, then worried that this was a huge waste of money, then angry as I realized that this was definitely, absolutely a huge waste of money. Instead of the “interactive pop-up exhibit” with “multi-sensory themed rooms” promised on its website, Happy Place merely delivered a series of rooms full of Instagram backdrops, some with speakers playing pop hits, all of which left me with a feeling of dread about humanity and an anger towards myself for shelling out $35 per ticket for myself, my partner, and his little sister.

I am in no way saying that people shouldn’t post amazing pictures on Instagram, or hating on people who hustle to work the system of social media through carefully curated photos that project a certain lifestyle that others want to follow. Nor am I judging people who choose to only put their joyous moments on Instagram for public consumption. Hell, I do it. We all do it! Who wants to see other people’s bad parts of life when you already have to deal with your own? There’s nothing wrong with finding great backdrops for your photos and selecting only the pictures that show you in the most fun, interesting, and happy light.

However, a pop-up exhibit billing itself as an interactive, multi-sensory experience that’s actually tailor made for cool Instagram backgrounds and nothing else is shitty false advertising and an extremely garbage take on the movement for personal happiness.

I didn’t leave Happy Place feeling happy, but I did leave with a few of photos and boomerangs that I could use to convince people I was.

Observe: Here’s a still from a boomerang of me and partner in a room with walls made of rubber duckies, in a tub filled with yellow balls that we tossed at each other. There wasn’t anything to actually do, and someone was impatiently waiting for us to get the fuck out so they could have their turn, but it’s the perfect thing to put on Instagram to show all my followers that I spend time doing adorable things with my adorable partner.

The website promises a “multi-sensory” experience, but you don’t have to be an experience designer to see how much potential this idea had and how spectacularly it fell short. Disney World has taught us that waiting in line doesn’t have to be a boring experience. There can be things to do! Games to play! Or at leas the beginning parts of a story that continues to unfold as you move along. Not so at Happy Place, where the only people who get the solely visual experience are the ones right up in it and those waiting are left to amuse themselves. The wait for the ball pit was going to be about half an hour, with the “adult fun house” offering nothing. It was the same at the giant X and O, where only one person or couple could take a photo at a time (and, where an attendant told us as we contemplated waiting in line that we were not to sit inside the giant O as it was made of glass and could cut us.) There wasn’t actually much to touch or even do. I started to wonder: who the fuck designed this? Did they even hire designers? So much for interaction. But, at this early part in the pop-up, I still had some hope for some interesting smells and tastes, but this area was another letdown.

According to the website, “there are plenty of treats included with your ticket” and a video at the beginning encourages attendees to look, listen, smell and taste the experience. I’ll save you the thoughts of a taste to go with each room, which was what I was expecting — the “taste” part of the experience included a few chocolate candies and a Tootsie Pop, although I was interested to read the small sign informing guests that Tootsie Pops are made right here in Chicago, a tidbit I wasn’t aware of. If there was a smell component to the experience, it floated past me as we contemplated waiting in line for a turn to take a picture in the disappointingly tiny ball pit (we passed). At the end of the exhibit was the most honestly depressing piece of it all: a gift shop and a few food stalls selling lemonade, cotton candy, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Something about the dim lighting and the realization that even the cotton candy was for sale and not included in the ticket price took the feelings of disquietude and distress that had been flowing through me and solidified them into full-on dismay: this place had nothing to do with happiness and everything to do with capitalizing on people’s desire for happiness, and I had fallen right into the trap.

I wonder: did Angelenos going through this “experience” in its original home in LA feel what I did? Was there some kind of cultural difference between the home of Hollywood, with its higher priority on appearance, and my home in the midwest, a place known more for its common sense? Is this actually really fun and my trio simply didn’t get it? In short: what the fuck is going on here?

I think the answer boils down the cold hard cash to be made exploiting people’s desire for happiness and the marketing that’s sprung up around the notions of self care and individual joy. The creator says in this article that he “is on a journey to raise his three children surrounded by positivity and joy.” And I’m sure all the money he’s making off people like me is doing a lot to make that happen for his kids. The article continues that this whole dumb shtick “exists to provide an oasis for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together and embrace moments of happiness in their everyday lives.”

Happy Place certainly did not bring me happiness. Rather, it left me with an intense irritation at having fallen prey to this particular piece of late stage capitalism and a general malaise that my fellow human beings could be so awful as to dream up something so extraordinarily disappointing to inflict on each other. For god’s sake, there were a bunch of kids there! But, upon returning home with my partner and sister-in-law, I was suddenly determined to do what I know actually makes us happy: meaningful time with the people we love. I opened some wine and the three of us sat on the porch with my two dogs and had a great time detailing each and every way Happy Place failed to deliver. I savored the taste of the wine, enjoyed the breeze of the summer day and the view of the city, talked with people I love and smelled the cookout happening down the street. My advice: skip the mind-bogglingly dismal experience of wandering through the often downright dumb photo-op backdrops that make up Happy Place (unless you’re a big deal on Instagram, in which case this it’s money well spent) and spend your $35 on something quality to eat and drink with the people you care about.

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