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How a Willy Wonka Event in the U.K. Ended in Calls to Police and Demands For Refunds

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Children dressed up in Willy Wonka costumes and excited to enter what was advertised as a “full immersive experience…promising a day of pure imagination and wonder” were instead disappointed by a seemingly unprofessional event where they received no chocolate, leading outraged parents to demand refunds for their £35 ($44) tickets. 

“Willy’s Chocolate Experience,” which debuted on Feb. 24 in Glasgow, Scotland, has now been canceled. The event followed the release of the new film Wonka, the origin story of Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The outrage led to calls to police, with Police Scotland telling TIME in an email that “officers were called after an event was canceled and advice was given.” A Facebook group titled “House of Illuminati scam” had amassed 3,000 members as of Thursday afternoon.  

Here’s what you need to know about the event, who was behind it, and what those involved have said. 

The reviews from guests of the Willy Wonka event

People who said they attended the event posted pictures and wrote about their experiences on Facebook. One called it an “absolute shambles” on Feb. 24, saying it had been advertised as offering chocolate fountains, but it took “two minutes” to go through. A different social media user shared a picture of plastic cups of lemonade lined up on a bare folding table.

One video showed a figure dressed in black with a silver mask emerging from behind one of the mirrors, with kids starting to cry. It’s been widely circulated that this figure was a made-up villain created specially for the event and named “The Unknown.”

Another video on TikTok showed two children entering the warehouse space filled with some decorations, including a gate, bridge and large candy bars, before passing through an exhibit with commonly sized full-length mirrors leaning against haphazardly hung curtains. The children’s smiles as they pose for photos at first give way to confusion by the end of the video.

Who was behind the Willy Wonka event?

The event was organized by the House of Illuminati, an experience company with a London address, according to the advertisement and its website. 

The company shared on its Facebook page on Wednesday, in a post that was no longer visible Thursday, that it understood the cancellation “of something that was supposed to be an artist rendition of a well-known novel has caused disappointment, frustration, and anger.”

“The process of giving your money back has already started as a number of people can confirm,” the company wrote. “The intention was to genuinely create something special for you that didn’t work out.” 

On Monday, the company shared a screenshot showing 850 refunds issued with a message that began “Today has been a very stressful and frustrating day for many and for that we are truly sorry.” That message and the screenshot were also no longer visible on Thursday. 

TIME reached out to the House of Illuminati by email and phone for comment. 

Willy's chocolate experience
A screengrab from Willy's Chocolate Experience promises "captivating entertainment" and features many typos.www.willyschocolateexperience.com

The man behind the experience was the House of Illuminati director Billy Coull, according to Matt Waterfield, operations manager at Box Hub, the warehouse venue that rented its space to House of Illuminati, but was not involved in the planning or the production of the event. 

Coull describes himself on his social media accounts and Amazon author page as an “enigmatic wordsmith” from Glasgow. TIME reached out to Coull via Instagram for comment. 

In a video statement released by Scottish media channel STV News, Coull said: “I’m so, so sorry to everybody for the sheer and utter disappointment.” STV News reported that Coull blamed “technical issues” for the event’s shortcomings. 

Waterfield tells TIME in a phone call he hasn’t spoken to Coull since the fiasco, claiming “he’s not been picking up the phone.”

What the Willy Wonka event staff have said

Actor and comedian Paul Connell said in a series of TikTok videos that he was hired to portray Willy Wonka at the event and felt for anyone who bought tickets. He said he was given a 15-page monologue script of “AI-generated gibberish” and told to give children one jelly bean and a quarter cup of supermarket-brand lemonade.

Another actor hired to be an Oompa Loompa is the star of a now-viral photo showing her surrounded by a makeshift chemistry kit.

The woman in the photo, Kirsty Paterson, told Vulture she’s a fire dancer and yoga instructor with a “side hustle” in acting in children’s entertainment. She said she was shocked when she arrived for the dress rehearsal to find what looked like an unfinished production––and even more shocked when she showed up for the event to find nothing had changed. 

Paterson said she tried to make the best of it for the kids. 

“They had this ‘Jellybean Room,’ but they eventually ran out of jelly beans. I was already rationing the jelly beans to three per kid, and that was me being generous,” Paterson shared. “I wanted to give the kids all the candy. So we had no jelly beans, and people were coming up to me. It was just humiliating. I was starting to get angry.”

What is the venue’s take?

Waterfield, of Box Hub, tells TIME he had been in contact with House of Illuminati since January and says they had “detailed plans for running a massive family friendly event that really sounded great.”

“Obviously when they came in and dressed the space, it was incredibly underwhelming,” Waterfield says. “When families started arriving on Saturday in the morning, there was an uproar.” 

Per Waterfield, the event, which was supposed to run through the weekend, was canceled after that. His venue is not out any money, he says.

“He pulled the wool over our eyes just as he did with others,” Waterfield claims. 

When asked what he thought went wrong, Waterfield says he thinks it was “a mixture of ignorance and perhaps some complete inexperience.” 

“The main thing for us is there were lots of disappointed families that had to travel from all over. I hope House of Illuminati comes good on their promise to issue refunds to everyone who was let down.”

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