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Immersive attractions
Tom Lionetti-Maguire

From an unemployed actor making calls from his bedroom to the CEO of one of the world’s top immersive attractions companies – the founder of Little Lion Entertainment shares the journey with Magali Robathan


What is Little Lion Entertainment and how did it begin?
I founded Little Lion in 2015. I was an actor for a long time before that, working mainly in theatre. Towards the end of my acting career, I worked as an actor for Secret Cinema, and I was in an immersive show called Heist in which visitors were solicited to commit robbery. We thought it would run for a few weeks, but it ended up selling out for a year.

It was a revelatory experience for me – I had this immediate and absolute understanding of how much people loved this form of entertainment.

The day the show closed, I set about starting an immersive theatre / attraction / live experience company. Almost 10 years on, we employ nearly 350 people, and we’re one of the première immersive attraction companies in the world.

How did you land on the idea of the Crystal Maze Live Experience? 
I knew I wanted to make something immersive with theatre at its heart, and that I wanted to do something populist that would appeal to as broad a church as possible.

The Crystal Maze was a show I loved; it has theatricality, a wonderful eccentricity and sense of humour. Also it was a very popular tv show. It felt like the perfect vehicle for what I wanted to create.

What were the early days like?
I was an actor, not a business-person; I didn’t have any money and didn’t really know what I was doing. At the start, it was just me in my bedroom making calls, badgering and cajoling the people who owned the rights to The Crystal Maze.

It was hard, but also there was a sense of freedom and fearlessness in having nothing to lose that I miss sometimes. I was just absolutely driven to make this thing happen.

What were the biggest challenges of getting off the ground?
Once I’d secured an option to the rights to The Crystal Maze, I was faced with the next problem, which was that I had no money. We launched a crowd-funding campaign, which was in effect an advance sale of tickets – we promised that if we got off the ground, our backers would be the first through the door. We raised £1million in two weeks – it was beyond my wildest dreams.

The third major challenge was finding a suitable location in London and battling the London property market. We eventually found a great building in Angel in north London, and we opened the first Crystal Maze Live Experience in 2016. It quickly sold out for 12 months.

How did the idea to create the Tomb Raider Live Experience come about?
Fast forward to 2021. By this point the London Crystal Maze Live Experience was running successfully, and we’d opened a second Crystal Maze Live Experience in Manchester in 2017. We built a third Crystal Maze experience in Riyadh in the Middle East, which opened in 2021.

We wanted to create a new experience, and struck on the idea of Tomb Raider. We wanted a show with a globe-trotting narrative with multiple games along the way. Tomb Raider, with its strong female character, felt like the right world to create that show in.

What trends do you see in your industry?
Moving into the world of real-life video games is where I see the future of entertainment.

A couple of years ago we started a new company, the Ents Inc., to explore the liminal space between live events and video games, and see how they could be brought together.

The first game we created was Chaos Karts. We have created a version of all of our favourite racing and go karting games. Participants race and battle one another in real time, in digitally projected worlds created within large 15,000sq ft games arenas. It’s like being inside a video game.

We opened the first Chaos Karts experience in Manchester, UK in September 2023.

Why are you so excited about this ?
There’s a reason that the video games industry is the biggest of all the entertainment industries – it’s because it’s so rich, beautiful, immersive and creative. The interesting thing about what we’re doing is that we’re creating a symbiosis with this world, and we’re also maintaining our original theatrical ethos, which is all about being the star of the show. It’s about agency, autonomy and being present with your fellow players.

These games arenas could hold multiple games, with the players becoming avatars in the game. As the technology gets more sophisticated, the kind of games we can inculcate into these arenas will become more and more complex.


What can you tell us about your expansion plans?
International expansion is a huge part of our plan. We opened the second Chaos Karts in Dubai in March 2024.

The two big growth areas for us are the Middle East and North America. We were on legal signing terms to open a venue in Dallas, Texas in 2020, before COVID-19 put paid to our plans.

We still really like Dallas as a location, and we’ve also looked at LA, Las Vegas and New York. We’ve got a few things on the table in the US, but the stars haven’t quite aligned perfectly yet.

We have a number of immersive projects and loads of gaming projects in development. We’re also exploring several projects with local councils and developers in the UK, where they have asked us to build big family entertainment-style attractions, often IP-led.

It’s a case of finding the right location at the right price, making sure we’ve got the funding, and then working out which project suits that location best.

What’s the focus for the next year or two?
What I’m incredibly excited about – both personally and in terms of the wider industry – is the work we’re doing creating live video games. I can’t wait to announce the next game – it’s going to knock people’s socks off. I think people in the industry will see that this is a real step towards something bigger.

I want to take this all the way. I can imagine a real-life event where you play Fortnite for real – imagine a whole army of people parachuted in. The sky’s the limit, but you’ve got to get there incrementally.

In terms of escapism, fun and really pushing the boundaries of what people can expect from entertainment – this is so exciting. People are ready for something new. A lot of modern entertainment and competitive socialising is incredibly basic and quite boring. People are sick of bowling, playing darts and mini golf.

The fact that Chaos Karts has done so well tells me that people are adventurous, they demand more, and they want to take that step into the future.

Who do you admire in the industry?
The two companies that showed us the path in this industry were Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk. I admire Secret Cinema for their ambition and scale and how wild they are in creating such expansive worlds. I’ve always looked up to Felix Barrett [artistic director at Punchdrunk] and admired what he has achieved. I love his dedication to the artistry of it – I’ve always found Punchdrunk’s shows extremely beautiful and mysterious.

When was the last time you were blown away by an attraction?
I went to teamLab in Tokyo last year. It was incredible – spellbinding, beautiful, visually spectacular. It was utterly immersive, and there was so much care and attention to detail there. There’s a huge respect for the audience. It was absolutely fantastic.

Photo: © Ivan Weiss

"Moving into the world of real-life video games is where I see the future of entertainment" – Tom Lionetti Maguire

The experiences
Crystal Maze: London, UK

The company’s first immersive experience launched in Angel in North London in April 2016 and ran until December 2017

Crystal Maze: London, UK

The Crystal Maze Live Experience moved to its flagship home in London’s West End in April 2018. It ran until December 2023 and is now going on tour internationally.

Crystal Maze: Manchester – Old Granada Studios

In 2017, Little Lion expanded its operations into the UK’s second city by creating a 30,000 sq ft Crystal Maze Live Experience at the Old Granada Studios.

Crystal Maze: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The first Crystal Maze Live Experience outside of the UK opened in 2021 in Riyadh City. It ran until 2022

Tomb Raider: London – Camden Stables Market

In April 2022, Little Lion opened the Tomb Raider immersive experience, leveraging one of the world’s most famous video-game and film properties.

Chaos Karts: Manchester, UK

Launched by Little Lion’s gaming arm, Ents Inc, Chaos Karts combines real life go-kart racing with augmented reality. Participants race other players in a digitally projected virtual world. It launched in Manchester in 2023.

Chaos Karts: Dubai, UAE

The second Chaos Karts experience launched in Dubai in March 2024.

Visitors take part in challenges, culminating in the final test in the Crystal Dome Credit: Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
Today’s audiences crave a sense of agency Credit: Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
A crowdfunding campaign raised £1m to create the Crystal Maze Experience Credit: Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
The Tomb Raider Live Experience launched in London in April 2022 Credit: Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
The Crystal Maze Live Experiences have been hugely popular Credit: Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
The second Chaos Karts experience launched in Dubai in March 2024 Credit: Photo:The Ents Inc Ltd
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2024 issue 2

View issue contents

Leisure Management - Tom Lionetti-Maguire

Immersive attractions

Tom Lionetti-Maguire


From an unemployed actor making calls from his bedroom to the CEO of one of the world’s top immersive attractions companies – the founder of Little Lion Entertainment shares the journey with Magali Robathan

The first Crystal Maze Live Experience launched in 2016 in Angel, London Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
Visitors take part in challenges, culminating in the final test in the Crystal Dome Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
Today’s audiences crave a sense of agency Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
A crowdfunding campaign raised £1m to create the Crystal Maze Experience Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
The Tomb Raider Live Experience launched in London in April 2022 Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
The Crystal Maze Live Experiences have been hugely popular Photo: Little Lion Entertainment Ltd
The second Chaos Karts experience launched in Dubai in March 2024 Photo:The Ents Inc Ltd

What is Little Lion Entertainment and how did it begin?
I founded Little Lion in 2015. I was an actor for a long time before that, working mainly in theatre. Towards the end of my acting career, I worked as an actor for Secret Cinema, and I was in an immersive show called Heist in which visitors were solicited to commit robbery. We thought it would run for a few weeks, but it ended up selling out for a year.

It was a revelatory experience for me – I had this immediate and absolute understanding of how much people loved this form of entertainment.

The day the show closed, I set about starting an immersive theatre / attraction / live experience company. Almost 10 years on, we employ nearly 350 people, and we’re one of the première immersive attraction companies in the world.

How did you land on the idea of the Crystal Maze Live Experience? 
I knew I wanted to make something immersive with theatre at its heart, and that I wanted to do something populist that would appeal to as broad a church as possible.

The Crystal Maze was a show I loved; it has theatricality, a wonderful eccentricity and sense of humour. Also it was a very popular tv show. It felt like the perfect vehicle for what I wanted to create.

What were the early days like?
I was an actor, not a business-person; I didn’t have any money and didn’t really know what I was doing. At the start, it was just me in my bedroom making calls, badgering and cajoling the people who owned the rights to The Crystal Maze.

It was hard, but also there was a sense of freedom and fearlessness in having nothing to lose that I miss sometimes. I was just absolutely driven to make this thing happen.

What were the biggest challenges of getting off the ground?
Once I’d secured an option to the rights to The Crystal Maze, I was faced with the next problem, which was that I had no money. We launched a crowd-funding campaign, which was in effect an advance sale of tickets – we promised that if we got off the ground, our backers would be the first through the door. We raised £1million in two weeks – it was beyond my wildest dreams.

The third major challenge was finding a suitable location in London and battling the London property market. We eventually found a great building in Angel in north London, and we opened the first Crystal Maze Live Experience in 2016. It quickly sold out for 12 months.

How did the idea to create the Tomb Raider Live Experience come about?
Fast forward to 2021. By this point the London Crystal Maze Live Experience was running successfully, and we’d opened a second Crystal Maze Live Experience in Manchester in 2017. We built a third Crystal Maze experience in Riyadh in the Middle East, which opened in 2021.

We wanted to create a new experience, and struck on the idea of Tomb Raider. We wanted a show with a globe-trotting narrative with multiple games along the way. Tomb Raider, with its strong female character, felt like the right world to create that show in.

What trends do you see in your industry?
Moving into the world of real-life video games is where I see the future of entertainment.

A couple of years ago we started a new company, the Ents Inc., to explore the liminal space between live events and video games, and see how they could be brought together.

The first game we created was Chaos Karts. We have created a version of all of our favourite racing and go karting games. Participants race and battle one another in real time, in digitally projected worlds created within large 15,000sq ft games arenas. It’s like being inside a video game.

We opened the first Chaos Karts experience in Manchester, UK in September 2023.

Why are you so excited about this ?
There’s a reason that the video games industry is the biggest of all the entertainment industries – it’s because it’s so rich, beautiful, immersive and creative. The interesting thing about what we’re doing is that we’re creating a symbiosis with this world, and we’re also maintaining our original theatrical ethos, which is all about being the star of the show. It’s about agency, autonomy and being present with your fellow players.

These games arenas could hold multiple games, with the players becoming avatars in the game. As the technology gets more sophisticated, the kind of games we can inculcate into these arenas will become more and more complex.


What can you tell us about your expansion plans?
International expansion is a huge part of our plan. We opened the second Chaos Karts in Dubai in March 2024.

The two big growth areas for us are the Middle East and North America. We were on legal signing terms to open a venue in Dallas, Texas in 2020, before COVID-19 put paid to our plans.

We still really like Dallas as a location, and we’ve also looked at LA, Las Vegas and New York. We’ve got a few things on the table in the US, but the stars haven’t quite aligned perfectly yet.

We have a number of immersive projects and loads of gaming projects in development. We’re also exploring several projects with local councils and developers in the UK, where they have asked us to build big family entertainment-style attractions, often IP-led.

It’s a case of finding the right location at the right price, making sure we’ve got the funding, and then working out which project suits that location best.

What’s the focus for the next year or two?
What I’m incredibly excited about – both personally and in terms of the wider industry – is the work we’re doing creating live video games. I can’t wait to announce the next game – it’s going to knock people’s socks off. I think people in the industry will see that this is a real step towards something bigger.

I want to take this all the way. I can imagine a real-life event where you play Fortnite for real – imagine a whole army of people parachuted in. The sky’s the limit, but you’ve got to get there incrementally.

In terms of escapism, fun and really pushing the boundaries of what people can expect from entertainment – this is so exciting. People are ready for something new. A lot of modern entertainment and competitive socialising is incredibly basic and quite boring. People are sick of bowling, playing darts and mini golf.

The fact that Chaos Karts has done so well tells me that people are adventurous, they demand more, and they want to take that step into the future.

Who do you admire in the industry?
The two companies that showed us the path in this industry were Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk. I admire Secret Cinema for their ambition and scale and how wild they are in creating such expansive worlds. I’ve always looked up to Felix Barrett [artistic director at Punchdrunk] and admired what he has achieved. I love his dedication to the artistry of it – I’ve always found Punchdrunk’s shows extremely beautiful and mysterious.

When was the last time you were blown away by an attraction?
I went to teamLab in Tokyo last year. It was incredible – spellbinding, beautiful, visually spectacular. It was utterly immersive, and there was so much care and attention to detail there. There’s a huge respect for the audience. It was absolutely fantastic.

Photo: © Ivan Weiss

"Moving into the world of real-life video games is where I see the future of entertainment" – Tom Lionetti Maguire

The experiences
Crystal Maze: London, UK

The company’s first immersive experience launched in Angel in North London in April 2016 and ran until December 2017

Crystal Maze: London, UK

The Crystal Maze Live Experience moved to its flagship home in London’s West End in April 2018. It ran until December 2023 and is now going on tour internationally.

Crystal Maze: Manchester – Old Granada Studios

In 2017, Little Lion expanded its operations into the UK’s second city by creating a 30,000 sq ft Crystal Maze Live Experience at the Old Granada Studios.

Crystal Maze: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The first Crystal Maze Live Experience outside of the UK opened in 2021 in Riyadh City. It ran until 2022

Tomb Raider: London – Camden Stables Market

In April 2022, Little Lion opened the Tomb Raider immersive experience, leveraging one of the world’s most famous video-game and film properties.

Chaos Karts: Manchester, UK

Launched by Little Lion’s gaming arm, Ents Inc, Chaos Karts combines real life go-kart racing with augmented reality. Participants race other players in a digitally projected virtual world. It launched in Manchester in 2023.

Chaos Karts: Dubai, UAE

The second Chaos Karts experience launched in Dubai in March 2024.


Originally published in Attractions Management 2024 issue 2

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