“You can call me Moose Tracks,” our guide said upon arrival. The Museum of Ice Cream had come to Chicago, and I was there with my most trusted culinary companion, Takeout staff writer Angela Pagán. Everyone who works at the museum has their own ice cream name, Moose explained to us in the vestibule just outside of the entrance where we were gathered with two families waiting to enter the dessert-themed wonderland. It felt strangely like we were all about to go into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, even more so when we heard a commotion behind the entrance door—apparently there was a mishap with some chocolate that needed to be taken care of before we would be allowed in.
Moose distracted us with a couple rounds of questions (“What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” “What are your favorite toppings?”), and before long, the coast was clear and the entrance made to look like a walk-in freezer door was slowly opened. (Cue “Pure Imagination.”) Though we had some clues from social media, what actually lay beyond that door was a mystery to us: Was it an influencer’s paradise? A children’s playground? An actual anthropological look at the history and cultural impact of ice cream? Taking a deep breath and slapping on name tags with ice-cream-inspired monikers of our own, we walked through to find out.
The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) first opened as a popup in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in 2016. What was inside wasn’t really a museum at all but a series of Instagram backdrops, interactive displays, a giant pool full of sprinkles, and, yes, some actual ice cream served in various rooms throughout. In a 2019 interview with Observer, MOIC founder Maryellis Bunn coined the term “experium,” a combination of experience and museum, to best describe her brainchild.
The New York installment was an instant success: 30,000 tickets priced between $12 and $18 sold out in under a week, New York Magazine reported. Since then, the “experium” has popped up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami, and currently has locations in New York City, Austin, Singapore, Shanghai, and Chicago. Each location has different “experiences” and backdrops, with the pool of sprinkles being the one constant installation, though with varying designs. Tickets now go for $36-$60 a pop with the option to purchase add-ons for things like a visit to the Ice Cream Lab ($25) or a Birthday Celebration Bundle ($20-$28). It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it.
The two words that best describe the Museum of Ice Cream are “pink” and “loud.” The traveling pop-up is an ode to ice cream, yes, but as you’ll hear repeated several times by staffers, it’s actually an experience, one with a highly curated aesthetic that leans heavily on rosy shades ranging from light champagne to pure Pepto-Bismol. The constant cacophony of sound is multi-layered—the strange soundtrack being pumped through speakers throughout MOIC is at least two decibels too loud and so everyone is sort of scream-talking to be heard, not to mention on our particular visit there were hordes of children screaming with delight at every turn.
The entrance to the museum is set up like a Chicago el station, and the train car leads right into a “speakeasy” where you can buy sundaes, milkshakes, and cocktails. From there, you’re your own guide through the popup’s eight-and-a-half-ish “experiences.” We were surprised to find there was actually more to do than just snap a photo and move on; one of the most fun and interesting rooms is an interactive video game that uses giant, swinging cherries hanging from the ceiling as the controllers as the game lights up floor-to-ceiling on the walls around you. In a carnival-themed room, you can play some typical carnival games or take a ride on an animal-cracker-shaped carousel animal. The room dedicated to the hot dog ice cream (more on that later) includes two holes of miniature golf.
The entire place is, of course, eminently photographable. Each room has its own unique wallpaper pattern (mostly pink), there are interesting structures to pose on, and the ice cream served throughout is perfectly swirled. But anyone coming through with the sole goal of getting the best shots for their dating profile might end up disappointed. This place was packed. And at 3 p.m. on a weekday, when we happened to be there, much of the crowd was composed of rowdy children having the time of their lives with little regard for anyone else’s personal space. Carving out enough backdrop to strike a pose and get multiple shots would have been a Herculean task.
To be blunt: this place is a germ cesspool. Almost no one was masked, there were no distancing measures in place, and while there were hand sanitizer stations throughout, I’m going to guess that barely anyone took the time to sanitize between each interactive experience and drippy ice cream cone while chasing after their kids. Don’t even get me started on how little confidence I have that the pool filled with giant plastic sprinkles has ever been cleaned. As COVID cases are once again on the rise, it’s not a great look.
After about 30 minutes, we had made our way through every room, sampled all the ice cream offered, and were pretty ready to get the hell out and breathe some fresh outside air.
One of the most appealing things about your ticket to MOIC is that it includes unlimited ice cream. When you first walk in you’re offered a Dove bar, then you can try more small servings of different ice creams in four rooms along the way: a pineapple or cherry vanilla cone, a snow cone, a scoop of raspberry sorbet or blue moon ice cream in a cup, and the hot dog ice cream. As long as you’re in the experium, you can go back and have as many helpings as you like.
Let’s talk about the hot dog ice cream, arguably the main reason Angela and I wanted to go on this adventure in the first place. Served at a station resembling a hot dog cart, this dish featured a poppy-seed-covered hot dog bun dyed pink, a long cylinder of pink soft serve (the “hot dog”), strawberry syrup squeezed out of a ketchup bottle, and sprinkles. Also on the cart were tiny pickles and real yellow mustard as optional toppings. Obviously we had to go all the way, and the worker seemed shocked when back-to-back attendees asked for the vinegary add-ons.
Was it an extremely Instagrammable serving of ice cream? You bet. Did it taste good? Absolutely not. We each took a bite and dumped the rest, rushing to find a palate cleanser, which luckily wasn’t far—there really is ice cream at every turn.
There’s something extremely dystopian about these bright, colorful, somewhat functionless installations popping up inside closed businesses, which is how the project started. And seeing Chicago’s iteration in the storefront of the now empty Tribune Tower, which once housed some of the most influential journalists the city had to offer, was disappointing, signaling that while the media industry is on its deathbed, people will form a line down the block to snap a photo with a plastic sprinkle.
There was something about the staff’s demeanor that led me to believe they weren’t as excited to be there as their oft-repeated scripted banter made it seem. The logistics of certain experiences seemed like a mess; the large, unending crowds needed to be endlessly wrangled; and the loud music meant that their faux cheerful taglines needed to be screamed right into the ears of visitors to be heard. Smiles were pasted on as impatient guests asked why they couldn’t just go into the Ice Cream Lab already. When Angela and I kindly told one worker that there was no rush in letting us into a particular room and then complimented her ice-cream-themed hair clips, she reacted with such graciousness at our attitudes that I thought she was about to start sobbing.
A 2020 Forbes article titled “I scream. You scream. The meltdown at the museum of ice cream” confirms our suspicions that MOIC is a… challenging place to work. “Several workers also said they were expected to smile, sing and dance ice cream jingles for eight hours straight — without bathroom breaks,” the article reads.
One instance outlined is particularly horrific:
Another hourly employee says that she needed to go to the bathroom to change her tampon, and had to announce over her radio walkie-talkie that she was on her period. She says she was instructed to “hold it.” Four hours later someone relieved her and by that point, she says, she had become nauseous and bled through her pants. She claims she later contracted an infection and that she wasn’t the only one to have a similar experience. She says that two female managers would later suggest that she could change tampons or pads in the hallway, since there were no cameras.
The story paints Bunn (who’s ice cream name is “Scream,” by the way) as a true villain, slinging fatphobic comments left and right, living up to her self-appointed nickname by verbally accosting employees. In the summer of 2020, Bunn commissioned a bright pink mural on the New York location’s storefront with the words “I SCREAM FOR” painted above a list of the names of Black people who were killed by police, ostensibly in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. The backlash was instant and the mural was soon painted over.
The sprinkle pool, the experium’s crowning glory, provides a perfect sampling of MOIC’s demographics: On one end of the pool, a woman throws sprinkles in the air while a friend takes a picture to capture the perfect moment. On the other end, a couple flirtatiously pelts sprinkles at each other, giving off fourth date vibes. And all around, children cannonball straight into the plasticky depths. They’re all blissfully unaware that their photos may one day show up in a Hulu docuseries about the toxic reign of Maryellis Bunn.
In the end, although MOIC seems to attract all manner of people, it still doesn’t feel like it’s fully for anyone. Families with children might find it hard to keep track of kids, with plenty of opportunities for injuries or spills. Influencers might not be able to get the shot they were hoping for, with strangers easily walking into frame or bumping into the photographer. Ice cream obsessives would do better heading to a Jeni’s or a Salt & Straw and spending the day testing out flavors there—the one interesting offering at MOIC, the ice cream hot dog, was more a straight gimmick than delicious.
So who is the Museum of Ice Cream for? Knowing what we know now, maybe no one. So long as you pay to experience the empty spectacle of it all, this operation doesn’t seem to care that you leave with a bad taste in your mouth.