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As a proud product of the 90s, deciding whether or not to go back and experience it all again was a no-brainer. While I can’t say I’d want to go back to the (even more) awkward stages of my life that were full of gel pens, Lisa Frank folders, and jelly bracelets—all before my angsty teen years where sweatbands and Vans shoes ruled—the thought of reveling in the nostalgia for a couple of hours was incredibly comforting, so I decided to check out The 90’s Experience, a pop-up exhibit in Oakland.
Though it brought back all the feels, I couldn’t help but be appalled that the time had come where the popular products of my childhood years are considered vintage, where kids laugh at the technology that was groundbreaking “back in my day”, and where CDs are displayed next to floppy disks. Am I really that old?
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While it took me some time to get over this realization, I couldn’t pass up the chance to relive the 90s at Oakland’s Jack London Square. But boy, today’s interpretation of the 90s is much different than actually living through them. Fanny packs are officially back in style along with scrunchies, so it comes as no surprise that these items could be found throughout the crowd and inside the gift shop—but I was surprised to see just how much of today’s pop culture had infiltrated the experience. While taking pictures of your friends with a disposable camera was the cool thing to do in the 90s, The 90’s Experience was filled with Kardashian-inspired getups and an endless number of iPhones snapping away.
Having never been to a pop-up like this before, I found it entertaining—but frankly, quite sad, too—that most people mainly went to The 90’s Experience to get the perfect picture of themselves. Though the rooms were decked out in all kinds of retro designs that were super trendy when I was growing up, the people have changed, and so has the perspective. That being said, the further I went into the exhibit, the more I let loose and just had fun.
The experience begins with some trivia questions about pop culture from the 90s, such as who the cousins were in the L.A.-based The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where Ross’s wedding took place in Friends, and who Cher’s best friend was in the Beverly Hills classic Clueless. From here, the photo frenzy ensues through the “Belair Throne” room and across the hopscotch board before you’re greeted by nostalgic Laffy Taffy. The taste definitely brought me back to my childhood in the Southern California desert outside of Los Angeles, even as I stood firmly rooted in the Bay Area.
From here, The 90’s Experience wound through a series of photo displays that were crawling with people—which was not surprising considering it was supposed to be the last day of the Oakland pop-up (before it moves to L.A.) and the tickets were sold out. These displays featured everything from popular video games, to chart-topping album covers, to phone booths. But the fun truly began for me when we arrived at the pink unicorn bedroom my seven-year-old self dreamt about. It was at this point that I started to forget how weird it was to have so many pictures taken of myself—something that I have always hated. (Yes, I was that kid, and there are plenty of blurry photos of my hair to prove it.)
Afterward, we entered the “West vs. East” room, which depicted the iconic coast-to-coast battle. While Biggie Smalls got the cooler display (you know, with his classic golden crown), the clear winner was Tupac Shakur, who lived right here in the Bay Area. As we passed by the Mr. Sketch scented markers, the lockers I always wished I had in school, and the cereal boxes (whose nutrition facts state the 90s were “totally rad”, “hella fly”, “all that”, and full of “booyah”) the cool kids always had at their houses during sleepovers, I became more immersed in The 90’s Experience and everyone else began to fade away.
The next room really made me feel old because of how far technology has come since I was a kid. Pagers were the coolest things when they first came out, and I remember playing with a maroon-colored one as a child when it was no longer used. This room also brought back memories of writing things like hello on calculators (and made me miss the simplicity of the world back then).
And just like that, the nostalgia ended in a CD room that was clearly set up for photo shoots in the modern world rather than for showcasing a bygone era. I remember hanging CDs from fishing line in the ceiling, parsing through the jewel cases to find the right disk, and getting excited when multi-disk CD players came about, but the experience missed all of these real moments of the decade by choosing to create a Boomerang and Instagram opportunity instead. Yes, the rainbows from the CDs were pretty, but we just breezed past this narcissistic indulgence in favor of real nostalgia.
Speaking of which, the landline phone and pop-star posters in the next room definitely delivered. Though the clear phones with the exposed gears were definitely the coolest—and an obvious missed opportunity—I’ll take the turquoise one and appreciate the times where one had to check to make sure nobody else was on the line before calling their bestie.
Seriously, if I could go back to the 90s, you’d find me at the Los Angeles studios watching Friends being filmed, so having the chance to sit on the orange couch in front of the fountain was a dream come true—even if it wasn’t the couch.
All in all, even though the opportunity to experience the 90s started out uncomfortably, I’d definitely recommend seeing it for yourself. So get your tickets to The 90’s Experience in Oakland—which reopens on September 20—before they sell out, and keep an eye out for the Los Angeles location in 2020.
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…
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