From ice cream to illusions, immersive attractions are here to stay, and they're one of the brightest spots in retail

Brian J. Rogal, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Several years ago, immersive experiences showcasing popular artists such as Prince and Vincent van Gogh began popping up around Chicago, putting life back into the streets and filling once-vacant storefronts.

It was unclear whether immersive-style attractions, which allow guests to interact with the exhibits around them, were a passing fad or here to stay.

But most are still going strong, and today they represent one of the brightest spots in the Loop’s retail sector.

The Museum of Illusions Chicago, an interactive exhibit that presents dozens of optical illusions, just signed a deal expanding into a vacant storefront next to its location at 25 E. Washington St. in the Loop.

The expansion takes over space once occupied by a clothing retailer, and will change how the building looks to pedestrians, said Dan Shannon, the property’s asset manager.

“This is the first time in years that we’ve had 100% of our retail space leased,” he said.


Other experiential retail downtown includes Color Factory, an interactive art museum in Willis Tower; Mindworks, a space dedicated to behavioral science opened by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business; the Museum of Ice Cream in the Tribune Tower; and the Medieval Torture Museum at 177 N. State St. next to the Chicago Theatre.

“July and August were our biggest months in terms of attendance,” said Paula Malone, director of the torture museum, which opened in late 2021 and features historical exhibits such as a guillotine that curious visitors can drop on a dummy. “It’s not your standard downtown attraction, but we frequently get an emotional reaction from a lot of people, because they get a hands-on feel of what victims went through.”

But whether venues that provide experiences instead of selling goods or services can fill up the many vacant spaces downtown remains to be seen. The retail sector outside of downtown has made up a lot of ground lost during the pandemic, but the Loop is still missing many of its office workers, even though tourists and neighborhood residents are plentiful, and that’s kept vacancy rates high.

On the bright side, Loop retailers are no longer shrinking, and with foot traffic slowly increasing as more workers return to the office, the next few years may finally see more downtown stores.


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