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A Willy Wonka-inspired experience ‘scam’ was so bad that people called the cops

“I thought, this is where dreams go to die,” said one actor who was hired to work the event.

People who attended a Willy Wonka-inspired “Chocolate Experience” in Glasgow, Scotland, were promised “extraordinary props, oversized lollipops, and a paradise of sweet treats” — all promoted with dreamlike, candy-colored images on its website.  

When ticketholders arrived at the event over the weekend, they instead found a sparsely decorated warehouse with nothing resembling the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” franchise the event invoked in its advertising.

“It was just ridiculous. I mean, just very amateurish. Absolutely nothing like what was described,” said Alana Lockens, who paid £35 per ticket, or $44.40, to take her two young kids to the experience. “For the sake of my children, we were trying to be happy and smiley so that they wouldn’t pick up on the disappointment and just tried to make the best of a bad situation.”

House of Illuminati's "Willy's Chocolate Experience" event
House of Illuminati's "Willy's Chocolate Experience" event in Glasgow, Scotland, on Feb. 24, 2024.Stuart Sinclair

Outraged attendees immediately began posting their experiences online, calling the event underwhelming and a “scam.” Some people quickly likened the event to the infamous Fyre Festival, a chaotic and pricey island concert that was falsely advertised as a “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience.”

By Saturday afternoon, the experience had been canceled and local police confirmed to NBC News that they were called to the scene after attendees who felt conned began demanding refunds. And further examination, along with interviews of people hired to work the event, hints that artificial intelligence-generated media may have played a key role in creating its veneer.

The event website touted interactive exhibits, and images shared on the site couldn’t be found elsewhere on the internet through reverse image searches. Some bore known hallmarks of AI creation, most notably strange and nonsensical lettering.

Two actors hired for the event who spoke to NBC News said they were promised £500 to perform in themed costumes that weekend. They each said the script they were given appeared AI-generated because of its “gibberish” wording. And when they showed up for rehearsal Friday night, more alarm bells went off.

Michael Archibald said he heard back the same day he applied to the acting gig, which was listed on the jobs site Indeed. When he showed up to rehearse the day before the event, the warehouse still looked barebones beyond a few props, and he said costumes weren’t delivered until rehearsal was nearly over.

Things didn’t look much better when he arrived the next morning.

“I thought, this is where dreams go to die,” he said of his reaction upon walking into the warehouse Saturday. “I already could feel the embarrassment. … I knew the script was AI-generated, as well. I was like, this isn’t normal human writing.”

House of Illuminati's "Willy's Chocolate Experience" event
Stuart Sinclair, who took his children to the event, called it an "absolute shambles of an event" on Facebook.Stuart Sinclair

The event was hosted by the London-based event company House of Illuminati, which was incorporated just three months ago, according to the U.K. government agency Companies House. It describes itself as “a realm where fantasy and reality converge to create unparalleled immersive experiences.” The company didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

In the hours after the event’s abrupt cancellation, House of Illuminati posted a now-deleted statement on its Facebook page promising to return attendees’ money.

“Today has been a very stressful and frustrating day for many and for that we are truly sorry. Unfortunately last minute we were let down in many areas of our event and tried our best to continue on and push through and now realise we probably should havd cancelled first thing this morning instead,” the post said. “we fully apologise for what has happened and will be giving full refunds to each and every person that purchased tickets.”

It isn’t entirely clear whether the company used AI to generate its promotional images and character scripts, and the company hasn’t addressed the topic. 

Ever since the ongoing explosion in generative AI technology made it easy for internet users to instantaneously create web copy and images from text prompts, many sellers and services have begun using AI-generated content in their marketing. Deepfakes of celebrities and influencers advertising certain products have also circulated in recent months, tricking some potential buyers.

Paul Connell, another actor hired for the event, said some scenes in the script were “absolute nonsense” and impossible to replicate without special effects. The actors said event organizers soon told them to scrap the scripts and just improvise as the characters they were supposed to play.

At one point, Connell said, the actors began to suspect that the event was a sham and that they were unlikely to receive payment for their work. But after they discussed the situation among themselves, he said, they decided to stay and try to entertain the children as best as they could.

Paul Connell in his Willy Wonka costume
Paul Connell in his Willy Wonka costume.Paul Connell

“I just thought of it as I just want the kids to have a good time. So I’m going to be silly and take photographs with them and play little games with them,” Connell said. “There was a little girl dressed as an Oompa Loompa that was just really upset, because she’d expected Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and got a dirty warehouse in Glasgow.”

Connell said the situation began to deteriorate soon after the event began. He said he took a lunch break as his “sanity was starting to go” — and returned to see chaos unfolding.

“There was just a mob of people outside and inside. It was carnage,” Connell said. “I joked when I walked back in, ‘I’ve been at lunch an hour, what’s happened?’ And there was people just running everywhere, shouting, threatening the organizers.”

By then, the Police Service of Scotland had been called to the scene. A spokesperson said in an email that it wasn’t a police matter but that officers offered advice to frustrated attendees.

Lockens said she has received an email confirming her refund but hasn’t yet received the money in her account, which House of Illuminati’s post said can take up to 10 working days.

The company’s director, Billy Coull, appears to have wiped most of his online presence since he drew backlash for the event. Coull didn’t respond to requests for comment through his Instagram page. 

Disgruntled attendees have also created a Facebook group called “house of Illuminati scam” to share their experiences at Willy’s Chocolate Experience and organize efforts to secure refunds.

Box Hub, the event venue that rented out its space to House of Illuminati, said in an email that it has been in contact with several parents about offering its venue as a space to host another event for the families who were dismayed by last weekend’s.

“We would love to offer our venue completely free of charge as a gesture of apology on behalf of House of Illuminati, who either have no regards for the families and young children they have disappointed or are too embarrassed to comment,” operations manager Matt Waterfield wrote. 

He reiterated that Box Hub had no involvement with House of Illuminati’s event beyond renting out the Glasgow venue and said the company was “shocked to see the way this event had unravelled after being led to believe this event would be a ‘fully immersive showcase.’”

For Lockens, purchasing five tickets for her family made a sizable dent in her wallet. But she said she thought the experience would be worth it for her children, who are major fans of all things Willy Wonka. (The event’s website said it had no official affiliation with Warner Bros., which owns the rights to the Willy Wonka character.)

“It’s just not what I expected at all, and it certainly was not worth £35 per ticket,” she said. “In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis in the U.K., that’s money that most families won’t be able to afford to part with for something that was just so terrible.”