Twenty years ago this month, the geocaching community learned of Project A.P.E., a promotion sponsored by 20th Century Fox that aimed to generate interest for their summer blockbuster movie, Planet of the Apes. The promotion’s target audience: geocachers.
Geocaching was barely a year old at the time, and was just beginning to become more well known. The promotion’s backstory, which actually had no connection to the movie, was that a group of renegade humans were placing artifacts (geocaches) around the world in an effort to reveal an Alternate Primate Evolution.
Over the course of several weeks in 2001, a series of 14 A.P.E. geocaches were released in the United States, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Geocachers in each area assisted with placing the caches. A series of clues to each cache location was posted on a Project A.P.E. website until the actual coordinates were revealed. Then it was a race to find each cache, which contained Planet of the Apes movie props and SWAG. One cache even had tickets to the movie’s New York City premiere.
Most of the A.P.E. caches lasted a few weeks or up to a few years before they were archived. Only two are still active today: Mission 4: Southern Bowl, which is now part of the A.P.E. Brasil GeoTour and Mission 9: Tunnel of Light in Washington state. (Read about the 2017 rediscovery of Mission 9 here.)
While many geocaching promotions have come and gone, Project A.P.E. remains a storied chapter of game lore. This is largely due to the icon attached to A.P.E. caches. For many geocachers, finding an A.P.E. cache in Brazil or Washington state is now a bucket list item!
Geocaching HQ co-founder Jeremy Irish worked closely on Project A.P.E. and shared some memories on the 20th anniversary.
What do you remember about how 20th Century Fox introduced the Project A.P.E. idea to you?
Scott Sandborn, a VP from an advertising agency called i-traffic, contacted me out of the blue over email. They were representing 20th Century Fox and had the idea to create a promotion for an “upcoming blockbuster release of a movie.” At the time they were interested in brainstorming ideas as a win-win for both geocaching and a unique way to promote the movie. This was in the early days of alternate reality games, around the time when The Beast promotion came out for the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
Did they come to you with a detailed plan or did you work on building something from scratch?
It was more than 20 years ago, so I don’t remember exactly how detailed their idea was, but they did come up with the basic Project A.P.E backstory. The collaboration was largely about executing the project in a way that wasn’t overly promotional and was more of an enhancement of geocaching.
What were your goals for HQ and geocaching?
This was an opportunity to not only get the word out about geocaching, but to also provide a fun activity for those already involved in the game, while not being overly commercial. The commercial aspect was the biggest concern because we wanted to ensure the game was not pushing any particular agenda. The Project A.P.E. promotion actually did not overtly reference the Planet of the Apes movie.
From a technical perspective on Geocaching.com, how complicated was the project?
When creating the first cache types, I didn’t really design the website in a way that made it easy to add a new cache type. It was like untangling Christmas lights — cache types are a major part of the game and everything is associated with them.
For example, different geocache types have different log types, and those features trickled down to GPX files, the format used for various handheld devices. I didn’t want to break anything when people downloaded these new geocache types, so I had to retrofit the formats.
The hardest part of the promotion was not technology but logistics — identifying geocachers around the world who would obtain permission from land managers and hide A.P.E. caches, and delivering the large cache containers to them. Fortunately, the advertising agency did a lot of the heavy lifting once we determined who would place the caches.
How was it determined where the caches would be placed and who would assist with hiding?
Fox chose the regions and I queried the geocaching database to find the most active geocachers in those regions by number of finds. I contacted the cachers personally to see if they were interested in being involved. If they said yes, I introduced them to the agency to ship the containers with props and SWAG.
For the Seattle area, it was easy. Jon Stanley (Moun10Bike) and I placed the A.P.E. cache together along the Iron Horse trail, one of my favorite hikes, with the help of the park ranger. We actually drove through the old train tunnel to place the cache.
Today, the surviving A.P.E. caches are destination caches for many players. Is that something you could have foreseen back in 2001?
To be honest, I didn’t really expect the promotion to last past the release of the movie. Since it wasn’t hurting anything we decided to leave the caches listed on the website. The unique cache type certainly attracted people to the caches.
It became clear early on that we had to create some rules for continuing to list them on the site. For example, every A.P.E. cache had to be the original container and remain at the same location to be considered an A.P.E. cache. I knew at some point, for various reasons, that every geocache would eventually be retired. I’m very impressed that two are still available.
What did you think about the rediscovery of the Mission 9 A.P.E. cache a few years ago?
It was pretty exciting to hear! Due to the size and weight of the container, I always doubted that someone would actually want to lug it through the 3-mile long train tunnel, and I’m glad that geocachers made the effort to track it down.
I remember that HQ had a lot of discussion on how to reintroduce the geocache in a way that respected the original listing rules and the spirit of the game. It’s funny how the A.P.E. caches took on a life of their own beyond the movie. It’s one of my favorite things about the hobby.
Did you try to find Project A.P.E. caches in 2001? Have you visited (or do you hope to visit) the active A.P.E. caches in Brazil or Washington state? Share your stories in the comment section!