Culture

Enter Gulliver's Gate: A tech mini-world with 100K toy people

A new Times Square attraction transports you to a miniature model world packed with tech -- including self-driving cars.

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The Big Apple is now home to one of the smallest worlds ever created.

The latest attraction to land in New York's Times Square is Gulliver's Gate, a $40 million miniature model world representing 50 nations. It's packed with iconic landmarks, monuments and world wonders -- all brought to life with a blend of technology.

This is much more advanced than your grandfather's holiday train set.

Self-driving cars zip down the roads of Times Square. Cruise ships coast down the Panama Canal. Zeus roars over Mount Olympus. Chickens peck at feed inside a coop in Russia. Tourists snap pics at a glimpse of Nessy. Don Quixote battles a windmill in Spain. And when the Rolling Stones play a concert in London, the ground shakes from the crowd jumping.

But sure, there are trains. More than 1,000, in fact, pulling a total of 12,000 wagons.

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Building this attraction was no small feat. Top model-making artists from around the world came together to craft lands with 1,000 trains, 10,000 cars and 100,000 tiny people. The section for New York City alone took nearly a year to make.

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"Gulliver's Gate is both tiny and fascinating and overwhelming all at the same time," said Jason Hackett, the attraction's chief marketing officer. "A big theme for us is this idea of reveal and how scale can help you understand the world better."

The sets were created at the standard train-model scale, a ratio of 1:87. So a 6-foot-tall person would be represented by a 0.8-inch tall figure. (And there are more than 100,000 such mini people.)

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There are plenty of Easter eggs hidden in the attraction. If you see something, say something.

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The sheer size is wondrous, spanning throughout a building with the square footage of a football field. And at every inch you have to look close to find cultural gems and jokes woven into the 300 scenes -- Easter eggs left by the model creators. Is that the Beatles crossing Abby Road? Spider-Man on top of the Brooklyn Bridge? The Mummy chasing tourists in Egypt?

Yet there's nothing small about what it took to make this attraction, a permanent fixture among the Times Square hodgepodge of Broadway theaters and tourist shops.

Gulliver's Gate is the brainchild of Eiran Gazit, a business consultant that blends his expertise in tourist attractions with a passion for model making. Back in 2002 he opened an attraction called Mini Isreal, a 14-acre display outside Jerusalem. But the main inspiration for creating the hyper-detailed model world of Gulliver's comes from Germany's Miniatur Wunderland -- a similar tourist exhibition in Hamburg with more than 1 million visitors a year.

Miniature worlds aren't typical tourist draws in America, but the success of Miniatur Wunderland is the proof of concept that gave investors confidence to build Gulliver's Gate.

In 2014, Gulliver's Gate pitched itself on Kickstarter asking for funding. On May 9, the attraction will celebrate its grand opening, with tickets costing $36 for adults and $28 for children. Although if you'd like to visit now during previews while the paint is still wet, it'll be $25 a person.

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This model of Doge Palace in Venice is placed in front of a model of the Colosseum in Rome. When working in the minature world, artists take creative liberties with space and time.

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Gazit recruited the best model makers from every corner of the world to construct the representations of each region. (Because who would be better suited to create a model of a region than the people who actually live there?)

The model makers of each region took their own approach for creating their worlds. Some crafted buildings by hand, others used the help of 3D printers. Russia was made in St. Petersburg by 26 people over the course of 158 days. But compare that with New York's model, made in Brooklyn, which took 16 people nearly a year to make. And all of Latin America, made in Buenos Aires by 15 people, took just two months.

Each region also put its own twist on tech to bring life to the world. Every guest will get a golden key with an RFID sensor to insert into interactive stations. Turn the key in the lock, and something nearby will come to life through movement and music.

There's also a computer system that manages self-driving cars that zipping around roads in Russia and New York City. The vehicles are powered wirelessly through copper embedded in the road, similar to how a phone can wirelessly charge. Infrared sensors hidden in the road talk to sensors in the car, with a computer system directing the vehicles to make sure they don't crash. Adding to the magic: The cars even use their blinkers before taking a turn.

The crown jewel of the display will be an airport, still a work in progress. Each aircraft will drive itself on the runway and be lifted into the sky by a rod to appear as if it is flying into the clouds. (And hidden in the clouds is a place for the planes to park for a recharge.)

You could walk though the space for an hour and still not see everything. Of course that's the goal of any good attraction -- get people to come back more than once.

As Hackett explains, the project is designed to constantly evolve and grow. There are even plans to build a Mars colony.

"It's not a magical place, it's a place of real transparency, from science and technology, and so the making of it is very important to us. We're never finished. We want to keep building in front of people so they can be inspired to do these things on their own."

Visitors are encouraged to ask questions as they see the works in progress. A workstation in the back has garage doors that open for guest interaction with the model makers, and the computer command center is open for questions with the technicians -- and that educational spirit was purposely part of the DNA of this experience.

"We are not a static museum where people cycle through, look at the pretty things and walk away," said Matthew Cote, the attraction's chief technology officer. "We want people to ask us questions, because you're probably curious to have someone tell you how that thing works, and we'll tell you."

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Get a body scan and order a 3D souvenir of yourself in various sizes. You can even be printed small enough to be placed in the exhibit as a permanent resident.

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And to really draw people in, visitors can actually put themselves in the exhibit. Step inside a 3D body scanner to take a photo with 128 Cannon DSLR cameras and get a miniature 3D model printed of you as a souvenir, or order an extra small version to be placed in the exhibit. The cost of becoming a model citizen: $44 (or roughly £34 or $AU58).

Walking through so many living landmarks can feel enchanting, yet also humbling. At Gulliver's Gate, you enter feeling like a giant. But when you leave, you just may realize how small you really are.

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