'Escape Rooms' Challenge Players To Solve Puzzles To Get Out
A new form of themed entertainment popping up across the country involves players willingly getting trapped in a room. To get out, they must solve a series of puzzles.
They are called escape rooms, and they're pioneered by entrepreneurs who've created a growing business with an unusual business model.
In Los Angeles, Amy Hartman and her friends were recently locked in a castle-themed escape room, complete with a skeleton of a king sitting in a throne, armor, puzzles and a chest they'll need to open if they want to get out.
They have just 60 minutes to escape.
The rooms are a little like video games come to life. They're filled with gadgets and puzzles that teams — usually of two to six people — have to solve in order to win. In the castle room, the puzzles and clues lead to a pair of keys that open a lock on a massive set of wooden doors.
The phenomenon started in Japan and was brought over to Europe before arriving on American shores.
"I've never expected that I'm going to do something like this," said Natalie Lapidus, owner of Maze Rooms — and creator of the castle room. "Because I am also like a manager. I have a degree in business administration."
Maze Rooms has six rooms in three locations in Los Angeles and a franchise in Austin.
That's nothing compared to Moscow where there are scores of rooms. Lapidus and her husband emigrated from there a little over a year ago. At 26, Lapidus is living a geeky version of the American Dream.
"I love this work because one day you're painting the walls, the other day you're sitting somewhere in the business meeting discussing the franchise opportunities. So it's different," she said.
Tickets run around $30 a person at most places, or teams can buy out the room. But there's a catch: Once a team beats a room, there's no more fun to be had.
This is the inherent risk in the business model. There's constant pressure for room owners to find new customers or build new rooms to stay alive in a city's market. Because the market in America is new, no one knows yet how long a popular room can stay profitable here.
And while — relatively speaking — it doesn't cost all that much to start a room, whether or not it's any good is another matter entirely.
"The only thing I'm really worried about is a person going, 'Oh, cool, escape rooms, that's a cool new thing.' And then they go and try a really bad one and they go and are like 'Escape rooms suck because that one was really bad,' " says Kayden Ressel, the entrepreneur behind The Basement, a horror themed escape room in the LA suburb of Sylmar.
It's a social thing to do on a Friday night that isn't going to a bar and getting drunk. And everyone has to put their phones away and everyone has to interact with each other.
The Basement relies on live actors and a meticulously detailed set to turn a plain warehouse into something that feels genuinely creepy.
"This is something that someone in their early 20s or late 20s or early 30s can go do with their friends," Ressel says. "It's a social thing to do on a Friday night that isn't going to a bar and getting drunk. And everyone has to put their phones away and everyone has to interact with each other."
As for that castle room, Hartman and her friends escaped after about 40 minutes.
"It was what I expected but it was more fun and it was actually harder," Hartman says, "although, apparently we did the super easy room."
Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstyle News — tech and culture coverage from Youth Radio.
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