The Austinites Behind the Curtain: Wishing Horse Productions

Previously in this series:
Tiny Minotaur
Art Island
Erica Lies
Mike Stefanik
Ron Berry
Hyperreal Film Club
Gino Scaramuzza

We love spotlighting local creatives who are responsible for the events that we list. Remember, there would be no pig parades, facial hair competitions, dance shows in quarries, or sound installations in tree houses without the individual people who organize and promote them. In September 2023, we spoke with Wishing Horse Productions, creators of an outdoor escape room

Lite + Brite: Can you give us a brief intro to what Wishing Horse Productions is?
Mark and Aris, founders of Wishing Horse Productions: Wishing Horse Productions is a creative experience design firm based in Austin. We design and facilitate in-person group activities that showcase iconic neighborhoods, small businesses, public art, and local history. The events we run are mainly for team building, conferences, off-sites, retreats, orientations, networking groups, and expos. But we also run private parties, bachelorette parties, and public games for tourists. 

Escape the Box is our flagship event: an immersive, hosted, time travel-themed outdoor escape game. During the introduction, you find out that you have been accepted into the prestigious Pi Institute for Time Travelers and that you have become dangerously “unstuck in time”. Your whole goal is to get back to the present, graduate from the Institute, and save the future of the Time Travel Industry. After your orientation, you receive a letter from the future and teams play within this narrative, exploring cool Austin neighborhoods while completing puzzles and creative challenges using retro tools like newspapers, maps, clues, and ciphers.

L+B: How do you choose locations for Escape the Box?
WHP: We need permanent stationary elements for our clues to work. So we look for fixtures such as murals, statues, and plaques. We also look for places with cultural significance, like a historic district, arts community, or downtown area. Some of our areas work better for different groups. For instance, we like to have our tourism families go to South Congress since it’s geared towards tourists. If it’s a large team-building group, we prefer to use our downtown game zone because it is accessible for all the huge hotels and can accommodate large groups and the complex routing systems they require so they won’t bottleneck or lump together in one area.

L+B: Escape the Box isn’t a typical escape room because there is no room. Why did you make that choice, and how do you think the experience compares to traditional escape rooms?
WHP: We designed Escape the Box during COVID, so at first we set it outdoors mostly for cautionary and logistical reasons. And then the outdoors ended up really defining Escape the Box and becoming a centerpiece of the experience. It’s like an escape room because there is a story with a race against the clock, codes to crack, and puzzles to solve in order to win. But it has blue skies and running around. No one is trapped inside, and you are encouraged to explore the larger world. Since you are expending a good amount of physical energy playing Escape the Box, our puzzles tend not to be quite as difficult overall as traditional escape rooms. Plus, since you are on the loose, you can grab an ice cream while you play!

L+B: How do you change your approach when you’re working with Austin locals vs. tourists vs. corporate groups?
WHP: Overall, the content doesn’t change too much. We find that all these groups, whether familiar or new to the area, get something meaningful from the experience. That being said, our corporate events, which tend to be much larger than our tourist offerings, involve quite a bit more planning and customization based on our clients’ needs. We certainly curate the routes more extensively to minimize bottlenecks, increase competitiveness, and enhance the user experience. Plus, our corporate partners have more options when it comes to the location of the experience.

L+B: What’s the most memorable or unexpected thing that’s happened during an Escape the Box
WHP: At our first large event in Nashville, we got to experience first-hand how captivating our experience could be on a large scale with hundreds of people ecstatically racing around the downtown area having the time of their lives. One of us was confused for Willie Wonka when we went into a candy store, which was probably a pretty unnerving experience for the employees. We discovered a time machine similar to the ones in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Dr. Who. Also, we’re pretty sure we saw a DeLorean crash through the spacetime continuum straight into a traffic light, shattering glass all over the street and sidewalk right by the Ryman Theater. So you know, mostly just time travel stuff.

L+B: Is there a site you dream of including on Escape the Box that you’ve just never been able to incorporate?
WHP: We’d love to develop content for museums, arts districts, nature preserves, botanical gardens, and the East Austin Studio Tour. Doing deeper dives into local culture and food and developing longer format games that take place over multiple locations would also be exciting.

L+B: What makes for a good/successful Escape the Box team?
WHP: The ideal team is active, open to new experiences, clever, wants to learn about each other, and
has varied learning styles that complement one another. In order to win it helps if there are
leadership qualities, a willingness to ask for help (which we incentivize), a verve for playing
along with an irreverent narrative. Most everyone will enjoy it if they try, and want to have fun.

L+B: If money and logistics were no object, what would be your dream event to organize?
WHP: We’d build a real Time Machine! We’d create a facility for the Pi Institute for Time Travelers, which also functions as an event space and immersive theater. Loosely inspired by the movie A Space Program by Tom Sachs, we would create a documentary film project around the creation of the facility, the founding of the Institute, the hiring and training of Time Travel “experts” and “professors,” engaging recruits, lesson plans, and labs. The time machine would be the heart of the facility where we kick off Escape the Box adventures and send participants “back in time.” The facility walls would be modular so we could quickly redesign the space to host our other services like Scene Stealer, our movie making competition, Mystery at the Manor, our murder mystery, and Art Factory, our functioning artist workshop where volunteers can assist artists with studio tasks. We would also offer tours and field trips of the facility to patrons and educators.

L+B: What are some of your favorite Austin events or experiences that you don’t produce?WHP: The East Austin Studio Tour is something we dive into every November. It is one of the coolest ways to engage with art and meet artists and it’s great if you have access to a bike. Two of our favorite stops are Cloud Tree on East Fifth and the Splinter Group right around the corner. Barton Springs feels like a pool from a different era and also helps the entire city keep its collective sanity intact. We love reading and cool spaces, so going to BookPeople, the central branch of the Austin Public Library, and even the Half Price Books up north are other great activities when the weather isn’t ideal. We listen to KUTX almost religiously. As seasoned absurdists, we totally appreciate and enjoy the Eureka Room(Editor’s note: We have previously profiled the founder of the Eureka Room.) We love free museums, too! That’s why we try to visit the Blanton Museum on Thursdays as much as we can. And nearby is the Harry Ransom Center, which has a massively eclectic collection and is always free. We are big fans of the inventive performances of the Rude Mechanicals and Erica Nix. Always on the lookout for inspiration and a cold drink, we enjoy frequenting places like Tiki Tatsu-yaEquipment Room, and we can’t wait to visit the Tiny Minotaur Tavern(Editor’s note: We have previously profiled the founder of Tiny Minotaur, too!) And we can’t forget about the Alamo Drafthouse, especially when they are doing a themed menu for indie movies or showcasing their own original programming.