Room escapes (or escape rooms, depending on how you choose to phrase them) are all the rage these days. While everyone has the ability to access entire digital universes on the touchscreens in our pockets, the urge to solve puzzles in real life and interact with a tactile world has led to a boom in what was once a niche industry. Whether you assemble a group of friends for a night out or go during a work sponsored teambuilding event, they offer a chance to use your brain and find out something new about the people locked in there with you! A simple Yelp search will bring up hundreds of new rooms to escape in every major city and for anywhere from $20-$100 a person, anyone can put their own puzzle solving savvy to the test.
But as many companies pop up to take advantage of the trend, with them, come an entire market of great ones, good ones, and some that are downright mediocre. Having now personally escaped 25+ rooms in cities from San Francisco to LA, Tampa to Montreal, Vegas to Chicago, and more, it’s time to identify key factors that make for some of the greatest escape experiences.
A Solid Theme
Theme is extremely important. The initial wave of rooms all seemed to choose the first types of stories to come to mind when thinking about escaping from anything. Prisons, viral outbreaks, and casino heists all seem like natural fits, but it’s the more creative stories that can make for some more immersive experiences. Rabbit Hole Games in Tampa Florida chose to base two of their rooms on the elusive, Florida-based, Bigfoot-esque, “Skunk Ape,” as you play rangers/researchers trying to track it down. This allowed for some truly unique experiences, such as digging through a research trailer and listening to field recordings, rather than simply looking for keys to open a lock.
Years ago, what set Disneyland apart from your standard, run-of-the-mill, carnival/theme park was fully immersive experiences that were created via facades, sculptures, and interactive elements (anyone ever try to remove the sword from the stone in front of the carousel or make the spiked ceiling drop while waiting in line for Indiana Jones?). While many rooms operate out of vacant spaces in a business park, some of the best rooms draw you into an entire world once you pass through the first door. Escape My Room in New Orleans, LA, goes so far as to have an entire mini scavenger hunt in their waiting room, hidden amongst an entire room full of Louisiana-style knick knacks and voodoo-inspired trinkets…and we won’t spoil the way in which you even get TO the waiting room itself!
Is it more fun to fumble around with the same kind of Masterlock that secured textbooks in your middle school locker or rotate ancient icons on large, stone-like, temple columns to open the door to a tomb? Would you rather spend an hour frantically trying different keys in a standard lock to remove a chain or dial the secret phone number on an oval office phone to reveal the White House bomb shelter? While simpler rooms resort to using standard locks from a hardware store in their first attempts at making room escapes, peering behind the scenes of the best ones reveals arduinos and computers that allow for some truly great puzzles that take advantage of lights, false walls, and hidden buttons/levers. We all use keys in our front doors, but holding the right combinations of medallions up to a painting to open secret passageways is enough to tap into the excited archeologist in all of us.
Puzzles are the foundation for all room escapes. Without that interactive element, you might as well go to a haunted house or a 4D movie experience. Theme, immersion, and technology go nowhere without intuitive puzzles to tie them all together. If a puzzle doesn’t make sense or is out of place in comparison to the theme, it only creates frustration. But the best solutions to puzzles naturally transition from one part of the room to the next. Does Al Capone’s bootlegging ways mean the different weights of alcohol bottles will open his secret stash or is it the names on the bottles that spell out a secret message? While the earliest rooms touted their difficulty and inability to escape in time, the greatest ones allow you to intuitively transition from one puzzle to the next. At Feet First Eventertainment, we offer traveling room (and hotel) escapes for people who are unable to leave their conferences or offices, which naturally makes immersion a little more difficult, but the natural puzzle progression and clever use of theme within those puzzles are truly the event’s strong suit.
And, When it All Comes Together?
So, what happens when you combine intuitive puzzles, a fully immersive theme, with impressive technology? Hands down, one of the best room escapes in North America is Palace Games in San Francisco, located at the Palace of Fine Arts. Each of their three rooms (soon to be four) is thematically tied into the specific period in which the Palace was built (1915) and is designed after a historic figure living around that time. Whether you’re literally trying to escape from the Houdini Room or utilizing one of the 2,332 patents Thomas Edison registered to explore the room with his namesake, every single moment either blows your mind with its creativity or leaves goosebumps once it’s been solved. In an attempt to avoid any kind of spoilers for these masterpieces of puzzles and technology, the only thing that can be said is you should go in with an open mind and be ready for some physical challenges as well!
So, be sure to keep an eye out for the more tech and story driven room escapes out there. These four elements can truly make the difference between simply opening a bunch of locks in a business park and feeling like the next Nicholas Cage, searching for a National Treasure in a book of secrets!