The year is 1985. The town is Hawkins. But the locale? Downtown Los Angeles.
“Stranger Things: The Drive-Into Experience” opened Wednesday in celebration of Netflix's beloved sci-fi series about a group of Indiana teens coming of age during the Reagan years and a monster invasion. The live entertainment production, which is co-produced by Netflix and the event platform Fever, re-creates key scenes from the show across a 400,000-square-foot set. Fans and casual viewers who paid upward of $69 per car drive from scene to scene, reliving pivotal moments from the show inside the Starcourt Mall, the Russian labs, the Upside Down and more.
Think of it like dinner theater but from the safety of your car.
Los Angeles Times’ television critic Lorraine Ali and gaming game critic Todd Martens separately motored through opening night of this pandemic-tailored, hour-plus experience, which spans all three seasons of the series and includes new music from the show’s composers, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Here’s what our critics had to say about leaving the bizarre 2020s for the strange 1980s.
Ali: Honestly I was a bit confused about what exactly this “experience” might offer and I’m a huge fan of the show, as is my teenager — so our expectations were high. The event check-in resembled a COVID-testing drive-through: Several lanes of cars routed around cones and masked attendants who reminded us to cover up and who scanned our mobile phones for reservations. But once we rounded the curve, so to speak, the opening Starcourt Mall scene made it clear this was going to be a fittingly campy, nostalgic and fun event for "Stranger Things" nerds.
Organizers created “Hawkins Radio,” a digital channel featuring "’80s classics, strange sonic intrusions, radio hijacks and bursts of information” to help transport the audience back to Season 3, which premiered in July 2019. Cast members of the experience, resembling "Stranger Things" main characters Will, Dustin, Lucas and Mike, meandered around the lanes of parked cars, interacting with us through the window. Their dialogue, some of it pulled directly from the show, was beamed through our radio. Fans will appreciate the "friends don't lie" squabble between Mike and El, while a DJ at the front of the "food court" entertained with a costume contest (fans had dressed in their ’80s worst), trivia quiz and hype about the "new" mall's Sam Goody and Orange Julius.
Workers dressed like Season 3's Scoops Ahoy employees brought us the teenager-friendly food that we’d ordered from a digital menu: corn dogs, pizza and Skittles at theme-park high prices. Box of popcorn, $9. Soda in a Hawkins High School collector’s cup: $12. We especially loved the overall attention to small details, like Will’s horribly dorky, high-waisted shorts, the preponderance of tube socks and the wonderfully obnoxious neon signage.
Martens: While you're far more knowledgeable on television happenings and all things "Stranger Things," my primary interest in this event was seeing how a themed environment would be brought to life in a parking garage, and if the show's ideas and concepts would come through to someone who is less intimately familiar with the show. I am a wimp, and at times "Stranger Things" has even been too scary for me.
I too loved ... the first half of the experience.
Everything in the Starcourt Mall area was the right mix of nostalgic and silly, and a great effort was made to get guests, though trapped in cars with windows up, to participate. I was at first self-conscious when one of the cast, sporting a neon windbreaker, jolted a VHS camera onto my windshield and I was asked to lip-sync on a giant screen while wearing a mask, but we all looked ridiculous, so I went with it. I was charmed, too, by the wait staff asking me what I was doing since I graduated Hawkins High School — we were all meant to adopt the role of someone returning for a reunion. One of them invited me to go see his band play, and I almost said, "Text me the details," before remembering the year of the show and stumbling with my response.
Ali: On the way to the next scene we spotted Sheriff Jim Hopper’s Bronco abandoned on the side of the road, which was a great indicator that creepier aspects of the show lay ahead. Then came the "danger" signage, in Russian no less. We knew where we were in the story, but since you're not super versed on the show, what did you think?
Martens: The first scene in the garage had me bummed I haven't seen every episode of the series. I was immediately greeted by a stern and sharply dressed actor in Soviet uniform playing a tough guy. My car is filthy — it hasn't been washed since December — and he slowly dragged his finger across my hood picking up the dirt, then held up his now grimy glove to scold me with his eyes.
As someone whose knowledge of the show is maybe 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 10, this immediately conveyed a bit of exaggeration and a slight threat, setting the stage for the "Stranger Things" kids to save the day. This also set up, to me, a show that would feel like the car equivalent of a maze at Knott's Berry Farm or Universal Studios, inspired by a well-known brand but not necessarily a reenactment of it. It would have been ambitious and impressive if the event maintained that tone throughout.
Ali: The Soviet guards crept up to our windows from nowhere, making me scream like, well, a girl. Or Dustin. The transformation of a commonplace parking garage into a Russian lab was impressive. And again, we were able to hear the dialogue between Steve "The Hair" Harrington and his snarky co-worker Robin, which was hysterical. I don't want to spoil that juncture of the experience with specifics, but the juxtaposition of the two bickering and tripping, while trying to save themselves and humanity, was hysterical.
The smoky "set" and staging seriously made me forget I was in one of my least favorite environs — a parking garage. We were not sure how long that scene lasted because it was so engrossing. Then we moved on to the Upside Down, which was a feat in itself from a design standpoint, with drifting, snow-like dust, creeping vines and multiple screens playing flashbacks from several seasons' worth of demogorgon and Mind Flayer madness.
Martens: Fully agree, and I want to give a quick shout-out to the actors playing the Robin and Steve characters. Pandemic acting with masks requires a good grasp of physicality, and little details, such as Robin acting like a puppet or bolting among cars, or Steve telling everyone to duck below the steering wheel, helped sell us on the idea that this parking garage was now a fully realized theatrical set.
Ali: I didn't recognize some of what was happening but learned later that scenes from the show were mixed with exclusive new scenarios inspired by "Stranger Things 3." They were apparently made in partnership with the show's creators, the Duffer brothers.
Martens: Unlike some other car-focused experiences I've done during the pandemic, the Russian scene leaned in heavily to our current reality: that we were in cars and they were performing in a non-traditional space. They even made use of all of that, instructing us to flash our lights at pivotal story moments. The creative team behind it, which included London-based immersive firm Secret Cinema, felt like they were creating something for 2020 and the pandemic.
But I'm sad to say I don't share your enthusiasm for the Upside Down portion of the experience. At this point there was a tonal shift, and not in the genre mash-up sense of "Stranger Things." Things got more passive. Yes, there were vines and scary dust — good thing we wore masks! — but there were also screens, lots of them, showing me parts of the series. I would have preferred a fully atmospheric approach to the Upside Down and could have done without clips from the show. One of the best things about being in a car and in the dark is that you can get away with more when it comes to set-building. Things can be stitched together with masking tape and Styrofoam, but some tricks of the light and artistic painting will sell us on it all being the real thing.
In the Upside Down, while I appreciate the set dressings, I simply became a viewer, and this spoke less to someone less familiar with the show. I went from being involved in a ride-like experience at a theme park to something that felt more promotional.
Now I'm bracing for you to tell me I'm wrong.
Ali: Todd, you are wrong. The Upside Down is an otherworld, a parallel universe. It's a dramatic break from Hawkins, where you can't interact with others there. The idea of being trapped in a surreal environ, I thought they captured that really well in their version of the creepy Upside Down. We actually felt isolated even though we were surrounded by dozens of other motorists — that is until the Jeep in front of me accidentally flipped on his lights. Sigh.
I won’t spoil what happens in the final throes of the journey, but expect high theatrics, lots of strobe lights and plenty of nostalgia for hungry fans, since the show’s fourth season won’t arrive until sometime next year. But I will admit that as we drove out, we opted to take a detour through the "Souvenir Shop." That's right. Park in stalls, scan a QR code and order all the utterly necessary "Stranger Things" memorabilia to tide you over until next season. I'm wearing my Hawkins High 1985 T-shirt ($30) as I type this. Thank you, "Stranger Things," for helping me cope with the strangest of times.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.