Navy Pier's new Illuminarium aims to immerse you in safari, space

Guests are surrounded by cinema-quality video of animals, asteroids and a colossal moon in the vast room that previously housed Crystal Gardens.

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Valencia Zarate and Ella Sulovari, both 5, walk toward a space scene Thursday at the Illuminarium at Navy Pier.

Valencia Zarate and Ella Sulovari, both 5, walk toward a space scene Thursday at the Illuminarium at Navy Pier.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

As a hippo’s jaws eased open — so up close, you could see the creature’s tonsils — Alan Greenberg explained the experience with the unbridled enthusiasm of Dr. John Hammond welcoming guests before the opening of his Jurassic Park.

“Overall, we are fulfilling people’s dreams. … Most of the people who walk down Michigan Avenue have probably never been on safari, but they dream about going. It’s on their bucket list,” said Greenberg, a self-described “serial entrepreneur.”

No worry, though, that a visitor might get trampled by a herd of wildebeest or chomped by the male lion that can be seen scratching its back on a rocky outcropping as lightning rends a South African sky.

‘Illuminarium’
Where: Navy Pier, 848 E. Grand Ave.
Tickets: $24.99 to $34.99
Info: illuminarium.com/chicago

Truthfully, the only thing lacking from the new Illuminarium’s “cinematic immersion” experience at Navy Pier might be the odor of the African grasslands — and that’s something Greenberg says can be pumped in.

The odor of space? Trickier.

“There is no great smell in space. It’s sort of a metallic smell, evidently,” said Greenberg, Illuminarium’s co-founder and CEO.

They were still tweaking the Illuminarium Thursday for the opening the next day, but what visitors will get is a 360-degree immersion into an African safari, as well as a tour through the Milky Way and far beyond — all of it projected onto the walls of an 8,000-square-foot warehouse-like space that previously housed Crystal Gardens.

Visitors wander around the space at leisure as the projected images change.
The accompanying soundtrack ranges from the ethereal to the predictable, from the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” to Strauss’ “Blue Danube.” The venue has a capacity of about 300 people.

The Navy Pier location is Greenberg’s fifth Illuminarium, with others previously opening in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Toronto and Macau, China.

The Illuminarium is meant to be a "communal" kind of immersive attraction, says Alan Greenberg, CEO of Illuminarium Experiences.

The Illuminarium is meant to be a “communal” kind of immersive attraction, says Alan Greenberg, CEO of Illuminarium Experiences.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The space experience features high-tech computer graphics that, in some cases, recreate NASA footage of the actual moon landings; a moon buggy kicks up dust as it bumps along over the desolate surface. Giant asteroids tumble into and out of view. At one point, a colossal moon rises in all of its chilly, gray splendor, taking up one entire wall of the Illuminarium.

Technology even allows visitors to leave faux moon boot prints on the ground as they roam around during the space show.

Other “experiences” are planned, including one featuring “icons of rock ‘n’ roll,” Greenberg said.

“Wild: A Safari Experience” was shot in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Rwanda and Tanzania at a total cost of about $15 million. Crews traveled to the continent four times to get exactly what they wanted, Greenberg said.

Visitors on Thursday look over the projections photographed in South Africa, Rwanda and Tanzania for "Wild: A Safari Experience" at the Illuminarium.

Visitors on Thursday look over the projections photographed in South Africa, Rwanda and Tanzania for “Wild: A Safari Experience” at the Illuminarium.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“The elephants aren’t always where you want them to be so you have to go back over and over to get the best possible shots,” he said.

The Illuminarium is a family show, which lasts about one hour. So visitors won’t see lions tearing apart a gazelle, for instance.

Although the new venue plans to offer virtual reality glasses, that isn’t its primary form of entertainment, Greenberg said. The idea is for it to be more of a “communal” event, he said.

“If you came here with your family and you’re all wearing goggles, you can’t talk to one another,” he said.

There are also plans to offer live sports and an “ultra lounge” in which adults could sip cocktails “at the bottom of the ocean,” he said.

The Illuminarium is opening four months after the Flyover, another immersive experience at Navy Pier, opened to the public.

It makes you wonder if that’s not overkill, especially on a day like Thursday, when a glittering Lake Michigan from the Pier offered an immersive experience unlike any other — and at no charge.

“The pier has balanced it just right, between food and beverage, attractions, the water events,” said Calum Pearson, Illuminarium’s executive vice president. “When people come down here, they can come down here for the whole thing.”

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