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Visiting Ohio’s Otherworld is a Road Trip to Another Dimension

by Linda Lee Baird

An art installation depicting a room with glow-in-dark decorative accents and light fixtures. There is a walkway through a tree stump-like work.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Otherworld
The Forest, an installation experience at Otherworld located in Columbus, Ohio.

Artists have turned an abandoned 32,000 square-feet retail space into an immersive, playful experience like no other.

Have you ever wanted to star in a sci-fi adventure, meeting creatures from outside the bounds of imagination? Have you ever wanted to touch the artwork in a museum? Did you imagine it would respond when you did so? Nine miles from downtown Columbus, Ohio—in a surreally reimagined corner of an abandoned shopping mall—you can do all of this, and more. Welcome to Otherworld.

Five years ago, Otherworld’s Ohio-raised founder Jordan Renda took the skills he’d learned from designing haunted houses and escape rooms, and converted a former Office Max store into an experience unlike any other. “It’s a place where people can interact with art,” Otherworld’s General Manager Jon Stewart says. “Not just looking at it; they can touch, feel, and play with it.” 

“It’s kind of like a choose your own adventure art exhibit,” Otherworld’s Lead Props and Scenic Fabricator Ira Tecson explains. 

“If you follow parts of the storyline, you’re a beta tester going into a sleep study. And then you’re traveling from one experience to the next.” 

A room with decorative doorways, reflective surfaces, and mushroom-like installations.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Otherworld
The Udderworld Courtyard at Otherworld in Columbus, Ohio.

Over 40 artists worked to turn the 32,000 square-foot space into an immersive—and evolving— experience, designed to delight kids and adults in equal measures, with a story slowly unfurling through nearly 50 unique rooms. 

“If you follow parts of the storyline, you’re a beta tester going into a sleep study. And then you’re traveling from one experience to the next,” Stewart explains. Whether visitors decide to begin by walking through a science lab, or studying clues in a janitor’s closet, they become part of an expansive tale. Throughout their visit, guests encounter puzzles and places that Stewart says “makes the art interact with you.” 

A person wearing safety gear operates a saw as they cut wood beams.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Otherworld
Ira Tescon working on an installation at Otherworld Ohio.

Midwest creatives have played a crucial role in the space from its inception. Tecson uses the skills she obtained studying sculpture at The Ohio State University to build the exhibition’s fantastical scenes, including a giant tree that anchors its center. Stewart—an Indiana native—joined the team after a stint working on cruise ships. And other local artists help keep the space dynamic, frequently refreshing and redesigning rooms. Tecson says that sometimes, “an artist will have an idea, and then we help them kind of execute their vision.” Area muralists have painted interior walls, and Columbus DJs have been invited to play music during special events. 

This unique redevelopment could be an innovative model for ghost malls nationwide. A 2023 study published in the blog of financial company IPX1031 notes that 68% of Americans live within an hour of a dead mall, and other experts predict the nation could have just 150 malls left by the early 2030s.

In contrast, Otherworld’s popularity is having a positive impact on local businesses, with a new indoor bounce playground opening up in another corner of the old shopping center, and a nearby seafood restaurant offering discounts to Otherworld’s customers.

A second location opened last summer in Philadelphia, and the team hints that there’s more to come, though they’re coy about the plans—not surprising for a group that’s mastered the art of the unexpected. In the meantime, a visit to the original Columbus location is well worth a drive this summer.