Man Behind ‘Willy Wonka’ Experience Apologizes, Denies Using Event to Pay for Wedding

Billy Coull, organizer of the now virally infamous knockoff Willy Wonka-themed family event in Glasgow last weekend, on Friday sought to calm furious parents demanding refunds for the pricey but decidedly lackluster “immersive” exhibit. In a statement shared on Facebook, he issued apologies to customers and reiterated a promise to refund everyone.

“Willy’s Chocolate Experience,” the trademark-skirting name given to Coull’s botched venture, was supposed to offer young fans of Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its various film adaptations a chance to experience the story’s candy-coated wonderland for themselves. Coull’s advertising materials included colorful art and lush descriptions of what sounded like an impressive theme park — but both were AI-generated, as was a garbled script handed out at the last minute to actors hired to play in-world characters. Attendees, who paid up to £35 (around $44) per ticket, waited in a long line to enter a meagerly decorated warehouse venue where children received jelly beans, though not chocolate.

Coull shut down the pop-up on Saturday afternoon — it was meant to run on Sunday as well — after facing a barrage of complaints from those who had gotten inside. Angry guests soon established a Facebook group where they mobilized efforts to secure refunds and expose Coull’s history of questionable enterprises, which includes a series of independently published AI-generated thriller novels with plots that touch on right-wing themes around human trafficking and vaccination. (Members also wound up sharing many of the memes inspired by pictures and videos they’d taken at the event.)

Meanwhile, Coull wiped most of the content from the Facebook page for House of Illuminati, the company responsible for “Willy’s Chocolate Experience,” and deleted his personal website, leading many to assume he had made off with the profits from this disastrous affair. (The actors also maintain they have not been paid.) On Friday, Coull at last delivered a statement from the House of Illuminati account professing deep regret and seeking to dispel a number of rumors.

“Firstly, I want to extend my sincerest apologies to each and every one of you who was looking forward to this event,” Coull wrote. “I understand the disappointment and frustration this has caused, and for that, I am truly sorry.” He clarified that he alone — as House of Illuminati’s apparently sole employee — was responsible for how the attraction unraveled, and that “anyone who was hired externally or offered their help” was not to blame for the incident.

Coull also mentioned Gowanbank Hub, a now defunct Glasgow foodbank he co-founded, seemingly to note that it had nothing to do with the Wonka fiasco. He went on to deny a rumor that he was using money from the event to pay for a wedding and honeymoon: “Regarding a personal matter,” the statement said, “there will be no wedding, and no wedding was funded by the ticket sales. This is a difficult time for me, and I ask for your understanding and privacy.”

Though he didn’t address complaints from actors who say they were not compensated, Coull did insist that every customer would receive a full refund. “I am committed to rectifying this situation,” he wrote, vowing “to ensure transparency and to demonstrate my commitment to making this right for everyone affected.” Finally, he asked “for a bit of time to process everything that has happened,” explaining, “My intention is to learn from this experience.”

Commenters joked about the event becoming a retroactive success as an internet punchline and encouraged Coull to stage it again. “Can you do it again in Los Angeles but please don’t change a single thing,” wrote one. But attendees were unsatisfied with Coull’s mea culpa, claiming that he still wasn’t taking responsibility (his name does not appear on the message) and that they hadn’t gotten their refunds — in some cases despite receiving a notice that it was in process.

“Listen to the people on here that have been asking for refunds for nearly a week, got the email stating refund in progress,” wrote one aggrieved visitor. “But like everyone else I’ve still had no refund, do the correct thing and give everyone the refunds they deserve.”

Coull it appears, is learning the hard way that a few words of reassurance — even coming from him instead of an AI — are no match for the wrath of parents with disappointed children and lightened wallets.