The Mobile Houdini of Western Springs
Cruise ship captain takes a detour . . . and steers right into a new career
Creative people often dream of exiting their everyday jobs, but Western Springs’ Jason Garvett embraced escape as a career move.
The architecture cruise captain and former acting/directing major wasn’t exactly sure how he’d scratch the old creative itch that had resurfaced. Then he went to an escape room for his birthday. He ended up in a room with several 15-year-olds.
“I thought it would be the worst birthday ever, trapped with them,” Garvett says with a laugh. “But the puzzle-solving, working with people I didn’t know. The generational thing was great — they figured out the combination for the lock but they didn’t know how to open it — the adults had to show them how locks worked. We all had to put down our phones! It was a fun setting.”
The adrenaline rush reminded Garvett of performing. Escape rooms intrigued him. But he knew from his years as charter manager for Chicago’s First Lady cruises how hard it can be to get lots of people to one place. The answer? Mobile Room Escape.
Incorporated in October 2015 and opened in March 2016, it was one of the country’s first mobile escape rooms.
Garvett first thought “mobile” could mean puzzles set up in customers’ houses — a “pop-up” room. He then realized people might not want strangers rummaging around their homes.
That’s how Garvett ended up in Morris, Illinois, ordering a customizable 32-foot trailer.
“The number of sleepless nights was ridiculous,” he recalls. “I was going from a secure job driving the boats to starting my own venture. It was one of the scariest times of my life.”
A week before opening, at a trade show in Schaumburg where he hoped to drum up a kids’ birthday party booking, Garvett met a business owner whose arcades and video games traveled in a trailer.
“I was thinking he was going to say I was copying him, but instead he told me he had worked for Ford for 30 years and designs trailers for various businesses. ‘Next time you design a trailer,’ he said, ‘call me.’”
The journey had a few dead ends. Selling tickets to sparse crowds in Gurnee Mills’ parking lot was somewhat fruitless. Garvett wasn’t sure he’d make enough to pay the gas and other bills. He worried he’d be closed within a week.
Fairs worked better. Patrons of fall harvests and various suburban festivals flocked to try out the trailer’s 15-minute experiences. But hour-long, family-friendly private parties in the themed trailer drew the most rave reviews — first, a mad scientist’s laboratory and then a submarine (World War II buff Garvett figured everyone loves a good periscope.)
His own creative puzzle was finally solved. “I get my fix acting, directing, writing. As a father of two, working and running another business, it would be hard to fit in rehearsals,” Garvett says.
The trailers have hosted parties for people aged from five to 80 and older in Naperville, Hinsdale, Elmhurst, Clarendon Hills and way beyond — to 14 other states, including Iowa for a post-prom event, and South Carolina for corporate team building. In Chicago, one room hosted Star Jones’ son’s birthday party.
Many escape rooms discourage children. Not Garvett.
“Any time you rule out a class of people — age, class, religion, orientation — it’s not a good decision. Unlike a lot of rooms, our game master is with participants the whole time — I hire actors and want them to engage the audience and be part of the scenario,” says Garvett, who still also captains the First Lady cruises.
Mobile Room Escape also builds trailers for other owners — yes, Garvett called the guy from Ford. The two have sent more than a dozen trailers to Miami, Seattle, Nashville, Branson and Atlanta.
“People kept asking about the mobile aspect. I thought, if I’m going to do that, I need an expert. We went to the first Escape Room trade show in the country and sold three. Now we build them.”
Coming soon: a trailer featuring super heroes and four original super villains drawn by a local cartoonist. “We try to appeal to all ages and types of people and keep it interesting for us too,” says Garvett. “If you’re not interested in what you’re doing, it’s not going to come out well.”
That’s whole point of an escape room — getting out, and having fun doing so.Edit Module