Candytopia brings the pop-up playground craze to Santa Monica

By Christina Campodonico

Candytopia, the latest in a wave of interactive
art installations geared toward social media, asks visitors to
imagine what happens “when unicorns and pigs fall in love.”
Really. Photo by Ted Soqui

“When unicorns and pigs fall in love!” declares swirly text inside Candytopia, a sugary and selfie-friendly pop-up installation at the Santa Monica Place shopping center.

And a whimsical lovechild of popular culture and creativity it most certainly is. The 16,000-square-foot, multi-room attraction is a mélange of confectionary concoctions inspired by everything from medieval mythology to modern art.

Those mythical pigs with unicorn horns and candied wings reign over one room; a sphinx made out of golden gummy bears lounges in another. A medieval knight draped in black licorice armor guards a Victorian library, and a dragon laced with sugary scales surveys the modern-looking gift shop. There’s a laughing-so-hard-you’re-crying emoji on one wall, with blue candy skulls for tears. And portraits of Prince and Gene Wilder (as Willy Wonka, no less) hang in a gallery of sugar-coated creations.

Candytopia is the pastiche brainchild of celebrity candy stylist Jackie Sorkin of TLC’s “Candy Queen,” who specializes in event catering and curation. And the “experiential space” is an idea whose time has certainly come to Los Angeles.

The wildly popular Museum of Ice Cream, which had its inaugural run in New York two years ago, charmed Angelenos last spring with its impossibly bright colors and a pool of plastic sprinkles four feet deep. Beyoncé and Jay-Z even popped in on Mother’s Day.

29Rooms, by the New York-based lifestyle website Refinery29, made a splash downtown for two weekends in December with Instragrammable backdrops that married interactive art with branded content.

The popularity of those installations as well as art world darling Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. and The Broad museum in downtown L.A. led W Magazine to dub 2017 the “Year of the Art Selfie.” Pics or it didn’t happen, right?

Well into 2018, the appetite for interactive pop-up experiences remains strong: Advance tickets to explore Candytopia ($23 for kids, $30 for adults) have already sold out online for the next three Saturdays and Sundays.

Needless to say, there are many whose palate would find the Candytopia experience a tad too sweet.

Other than Candytopia’s impressive recreation of masterpieces like Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup” and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” with materials as variant as peachie rings and “yellow licorice flower shooters,” there isn’t quite so much to chew on, literally or figuratively. (Honestly, the thought of all that candy going stale over the installation’s four-month run through Fourth of July turned my stomach a little.)

But Candytopia is no place for cynics. It’s for the young and the young at heart — not just young families, but people who aren’t afraid of acting silly for the sake of an Instagram post.

Scenes from last Saturday afternoon included a gaggle of women in their 30s or 40s swimming and taking selfies in a ball-pit of foam marshmallows, a young family posing for an impromptu portrait on a 100% emoji sign, and a few twentysomething women playing on rope swings to capture the perfect Boomerang video for Instagram. Parents eagerly snapped photos as kids frolicked through the rainbow room while jumpsuit-wearing staff members toss confetti in the air, another using a leaf blower to keep the blizzard circulating.

A golden gummy bear Sphinx and candied unicorn shrine are part of the kitsch that characterizes Candytopia
Photos By Ted Soqui

There is something to say about the zeitgeist of interactive pop-ups that cater to social media and the lengths that people will go to share a photo online, but what that is depends on who you are.

And for every curmudgeon mourning social media as the downfall of society, there are others for whom it’s NBD to post a status update from fantasyland IRL.

“There’s a lot of power in the idea” of pop-ups like Candytopia, said Santa Monica tutoring service owner Jonathan McCowan, who visited with his wife and two young daughters. “Ice cream. Candy. These are things that make people happy. It’s like a magic museum. Who wouldn’t want to go to that?”

“It’s perfect for the kids,” said Dawn Koenigsknecht, on vacation from Chicago with her family. “It makes you think of ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’”

(Aspiring Augustus Gloops take note: Visitors can touch the candy, but not lick or bite it, which would be not only destructive but gross because so many people are touching it. There are a few free samples throughout the exhibit to
tide you over … and plenty for sale at the gift shop.)

Even adults unaccompanied by children can enjoy the experience, if they approach it in the right spirit.

“It’s fun and cute,” says Zuly Gomez, who came with a group of girlfriends in color-coordinated outfits for the occasion. “It’s a reason to sugar up.”

Candytopia is open from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays through July 4 at Santa Monica Place, near Bloomingdale’s on the second floor. Tickets are $23 for kids ages 4 to 12 and $30 for adults at