Inside The Real Unreal
The portal is finally open. After more than a year of build-up, the immersive art sensation Meow Wolfopened its fourth location nationwide and first in Texas at Grapevine Mills mall on Friday, July 14.
Dubbed “The Real Unreal,” Meow Wolf Grapevine is (in simplest terms) a 30,000-square-foot walk-through attraction, designed and crafted by artists, that lets visitors ogle, explore, and interact with the installations to solve a mystery. Or not. You choose your own adventure on this trip.
Imagine entering a carnival fun house and falling down the Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit hole, into a Willy Wonka factory inside Hogwarts on the set of Stranger Things. But it's all art.
That’s Meow Wolf, and there’s nothing else like it in Dallas-Fort Worth.
There’s also nothing else like the ticket price, which has been the subject of much social media chatter around DFW since tickets went on sale in late spring. Adult admission is $50 ($45 for kids and military) - more than daily admission to Six Flags and a season pass to all 24 days of the State Fair of Texas.
It’s an investment, and investments need advisers to help yield the best return.
So, here’s some advice - essential background, tips, and things to know to get the most out of your experience at Meow Wolf “The Real Unreal.”
About the experience
Background and context: The concept of Meow Wolf started in 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico as an art collective by six self-described "misfit" artists who wanted to reintroduce art to the public in new and cool ways. The first Meow Wolf immersive exhibition opened there in 2016.
One of the founders, Matt King, was from Dallas-Fort Worth and is credited, in part, for bringing Meow Wolf to the Metroplex. Sadly, he passed away in 2022, but there are tributes to him throughout "The Real Unreal," including the name of the event space, the Neon Kingdom.
Meow Wolf locations - or "portals" - also exist in Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Denver, with Houston on the way in 2024. Each has its own design and theme. Meow Wolf at Grapevine Mills, created by 40 Texas artists and 150 Meow Wolf artists and fabricators, is the result of a multimillion-dollar renovation of an old Bed Bath & Beyond store.
"When choosing Grapevine, we looked at many criteria and were motivated by the large, diverse population and the thriving arts community," organizers say. "An attraction to the nostalgia of hanging out in a mall inspired us to create an experience at Grapevine Mills."
The Neon Kingdom is named for Meow Wolf's late co-founder Matt King, who was from DFW.Photo by Ashley Gongora
Why the weird name? “At the first meeting of the collective in 2008, everyone present put two words into a hat," the creators say. "We then picked two random words out of the hat and got 'Meow Wolf;' thus, this wild experiment was born!”
What you do there: Whatever you want, sorta. Guests enter “The Real Unreal” portal through the front door of a family home. Inside, there are more than 70 installations, rooms, portals, secret passageways, and wormholes to explore, layered with interactivity.
"The more you get curious, the more it pays off," they urge. "You will discover as much as you seek."
Go ahead and crawl inside the fireplace, shimmy into the washing machine, and step inside the refrigerator, and see where they all lead. There's no right or wrong path to take. It's meant to be a nonlinear adventure.
Go ahead, crawl into that washing machine and see where it takes you.Photo by Ashley Gongora
What it's about: At the entrance to the house, guests will get a story prompt. The story, written by LaShawn M. Wanak, centers on a blended family in Bolingbrook, Illinois, in an unspecified year. Their little boy, Jared, has gone missing from their house - to someplace real or imagined - and their quest to find him has unknowingly unlocked portals to a different existence. (Shades of Stranger Things, maybe, but spoiler alert: Monsters won't eat you.)
Lead writer LaShawn M. Wanak talks about the storyline, which begins at the front door of this house.Photo by Ashley Gongora
How to work through the portal: There likely will be three kinds of visitors to Meow Wolf Grapevine: 1) those who want to follow the story and solve the mystery of Jared's whereabouts; 2) those who just want to immerse themselves in the cool experience; and 3) those who go there for the art.
Following the story will take the longest but could yield the most satisfying experience. Easter eggs and clues are given on things like iPads and signs. Keeping track of characters and following the story can get pretty complex. It's perfectly fine not to get invested in the story - taking in Meow Wolf merely as a colorful, crazy, sensory-overloaded experience can still be a fun and wild time.
A tiny warning for those who want to deep-dive into the art: It's kind of tough, at least as the exhibition gets started. Unlike at art museums - where a brochure, tour guide, wall signage, or app tells you about each work - no information is given on site here. To learn about the artists and their works - say, the cute little sea creature named "Skuttles" in the Glow-quarium - you use a touch-screen kiosk in the cafe. Organizers say the art information will be on the website soon, and an app is in the works. It's possible they'll hold special events with artists occasionally too, they say.
A touch-screen kiosk in the cafe teaches about the art and artists behind Meow Wolf.Photo by Ashley Gongora
Can’t-miss rooms and features: (Warning - skip this part if you don’t want any spoilers.) Whether you're following the story or just exploring for fun, do not miss stops in: BRRRMUDA, an intersection of refrigerator portals from various dimensions that's a dance party, too (look up, up, up, at the "disco ball'). The Mystical Forest with its magical light, musical fungus, and Baba Yaga's treehouse nestled in its branches. Lamp Shop Alley bustling with city antics and doors, one of which leads into a cool Video Arcade with lots of games to play. Glow-quarium is a neon wonderland where creatures abound, high and low. Technicolor Party Inside My Head is by local muralist Mariell Guzman, inspired by the chaos of natural things. And in the Lightning Collection Room, brace yourself for a lightning storm. (Scroll the photos above to see even more.)
Coolest dance party ever in the BRRRRMUDA.Photo by Ashley Gongora
What it’s NOT: While there’s a mystery to solve and various ways to get in and out of rooms, Meow Wolf is not an escape room. And while it’s the most Instagammy place on the planet, it's not a selfie museum - or any kind of museum. It’s not an amusement park with rides, shows, live animals, or playground equipment, either.
How it compares to the original Santa Fe Meow Wolf: Someone who's been to both says, "Those who have had the opportunity to visit the original Meow Wolf in Santa Fe will notice a lot of similarities. Both start by entering a seemingly idyllic suburban house, with the layout being nearly identical, right down to the portals to other areas. This is clearly by design, perhaps to make the stories of the two experiences more connected, but visitors who've been to both might find themselves disappointed that more was not done to differentiate the two. The areas beyond the house have a familiar feeling, as well, although the details of the various nooks and crannies offer new, enchanting, and often baffling visuals. Because both Santa Fe and Grapevine are exhausting, never-ending, detail-oriented experiences, there's still plenty to enjoy here without feeling like you're doing the same thing over again."
Know before you go
Where it is: The "Real Unreal" is located on the east side of the Grapevine Mills near Neiman Marcus Last Call, Rainforest Cafe, and next to the new Arhaus furniture store. There’s not much signage to direct drivers there from the street or parking lot, but the exterior is brightly colored and says “Meow Wolf.”
You can park right in front of it, but all Meow Wolf visitors must enter through the mall and go through security metal detectors. (Leave your weapons and vapes at home.) Use Entrance 2 next to Rainforest Cafe, hang a right, walk toward the big sign that says “Come Find Yourselfs,” and look for the bright pink arches.
How the ticketing works: All tickets are sold online only and timed, 40 minutes apart. The number of visitors in each 40-minute time slot will vary depending on the time of year and time slot, organizers say. For those who show up without tickets, QR codes outside and attendants will help facilitate ticket sales on site.
Kids will enjoy pounding on these piano keys and seeing what happens.Photo by Ashley Gongora
Age and mobility considerations: The exhibitions are intended for adults and kids of all ages, and with many opportunities for hands-on exploration, Meow Wolf is a family-friendly destination. Parents of little ones, note that strollers are not allowed inside. There are public restrooms and changing rooms available.
Those with mobility issues should know that you can enjoy the experience without crawling through portals and climbing stairs. Three elevators help navigate the levels, as well as places to sit down inside. The entire experience is wheelchair accessible.
Service animals are allowed; emotional support animals are not. Heads up that strobe lights and loud noises are used in certain rooms.
What to wear: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes for over an hour of walking, climbing stairs, and (if you choose) crawling, climbing, and ducking under things. Heels and short skirts would be ill-advised. (Basically, dress like a mall walker.)
While there aren’t security restrictions on purses and bags, it’s best to keep them small, light, and hands-free. Lockers are available for rent for shopping bags and personal items visitors don’t wish to carry inside.
How long it takes: This depends on the kind of experience you want (see "How to work through the portal," above) but in general, allow at least an hour-and-a-half for the full experience. Some of the rooms are vast, and some are quite small. If they get crowded, keep moving and come back, as there are various ways to move around all the different rooms.
Even the mannequins in the retail store are over the top.Photo by Ashley Gongora
Food, drinks, and merch: An on-site cafe serves snacks and non-alcoholic drinks from 15 local purveyors. Concessions include chicken pot pie ($12), empanadas ($6), chips & salsa ($5), ice cream bars and cups ($5-7), and a variety of pastries, including macarons and “cake-sicles” ($3 and up). The cafe is more like a snack bar, not a full-service restaurant. (Sorry, girls' night out groups, there’s no bar.) A retail store sells everything from Meow Wolf onesies to hats, T-shirts, and puzzles.
Event space: Neon Kingdom, the most colorful room in the whole exhibition, is a 300+ capacity event room with a raised stage area and dance floor. It will host special Meow Wolf events and will be available for private rentals and buyouts beginning in September. Organizers say they hope to see local bands, poetry slams, and other kinds of community events take place there.
The Neon Kingdom event space will be ready for private rentals in September.Photo by Ashley Gongora
For more information and tickets, visit the Meow Wolf Grapevine website.
Alex Bentley contributed to this story.