SXSW 2018: Saddle on up for HBO’s Brilliantly Executed SXSWestworld

HBO sets a new standard for a festival experience

The 2018 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals is here, and the Cinapse team is on the ground, covering all things film.

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Just a few weeks ago, HBO dropped a tantalizing teaser, one that offered SXSW attendees the chance to “live without limits,” to visit Westworld itself and experience its delights. These popups at SXSW are often entertaining, if forgettable, experiences, so it was a pleasant surprise to see HBO set a new bar for how it’s done. It’s an interactive trip that blends entertainment, mystery, drama, and an explanation why more people than usual are walking around Austin in cowboy hats right now.

The experience runs through opening weekend and I urge you to get in, even via the standby line; details below. Read on for a recap of the experience.

Upon arrival at the East Side Tavern for check in, you see signs of what’s up. People on the rooftop bar wearing cowboy hats. Delos employees garbed in white greet you, their voices devoid of emotion, hinting at their host nature, making for the creepiest aspect of the experience. You are bestowed with either a white or black hat, then given a welcoming cocktail and snack while you wait for the shuttle to your Delos destination.

Upon arrival, you ascend some stairs into a train car and are greeted by one of the most striking scenes in the show, that white room where visitors get to begin their journey into Westworld. From there, you pass through a door into a train carriage, a portal to begin your acclimatization to the era, and on the other side, the town of Sweetwater.

Sweetwater itself is a preexisting wild-west town in East Austin, albeit one a little gussied up for this event, with special characters and installations to compliment the show.

It’s damn authentic. You can immerse yourself in the town. Visit the local store, have your photo taken with a “new” camera, play a round of poker, listen to a band, get a shave (really), grab some jerky, or get a surprisingly good old fashioned at the Mariposa. It’s all populated by characters who will guide you, tease you, flirt with you, or cuss you out for a multitude of reasons.

All this would be entertaining enough, but HBO has put a Delos layered twist on things. Given a minimal amount of clues, you soon become aware how many paths are laid out withing the story that is unfolding. Many attendees have a letter waiting for them in the post office, some are taken aside and alerted to mysterious happenings, setting in motion story-lines and treasure hunts, unveiling mysteries about the town, and Westworld in general. A lovers’ quarrel builds to a shootout. A fresh grave holds secrets. And an outhouse holds a mysterious secret. There’s also a piano player knocking out recognizable tunes (including the show’s theme), mentions of Dolores and other characters from the show to factor into your meanderings.

Apparently the popup is working from a 444 page original script, brought to life by over 60 actors and stunt workers. They recommend people stay for around 3 hours to get the full experience. It’s a truly impressive setup, one sure to entertain all, but for fans of the show it weaves in enough nods and hints at the upcoming Season 2 to make a trip to Sweetwater essential.

Photos by Jon Partridge and Rod Machen

Registration Link:

Previous activations at San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con gave fans an opportunity to experience the unsettling interview and check-in process at Westworld. This new experience will take them even deeper into the storyworld of the show, allowing them to explore more than two acres of custom-built parkland. After registering for an appointment at, guests will head to downtown Austin’s EastSide Tavern to check in. A luxurious Delos Shuttle will then drive them to a location just outside Austin, where they will visit a fully immersive, functional version of Sweetwater, the town at the center of the Westworld theme park from the series. Upon arrival, guests will be assigned a black hat or white hat and set loose to explore the park. No guidebook. No orientation.

Guests will get to live without limits as they interact with dozens of hosts across a variety of narratives, while hunting for clues about what’s to come in season two. Some of these clues will be hidden around the park, while others can only be discovered by asking the right questions of specific hosts. They will also have the opportunity to sample western-themed food and cocktails and to uncover other personalized elements that will make each visitor’s experience unique.

Once their time in the park has ended, the Delos Shuttle will return guests to EastSide Tavern. The entire experience will last approximately two hours.

SXSW attendees who want to visit Westworld can register for an appointment by visiting starting today. Half of the available slots will be booked in advance, with the remaining appointments opening up during SXSW for those who missed early registration. Attendees must be 21 years of age or older, with valid ID.

For guests who aren’t able to secure a reservation, an exclusive partnership with Lyft will allow fans with access to a secret code to unlock a custom Westworld-themed Lyft experience. Lucky fans who catch a ride in this mode will be treated to a free ride to the park and uncover in-story surprises along the way.

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