You’re locked in a room with a group of friends and/or strangers, and you have just one hour to work together to escape. As the clock ticks down, you must search for clues, solve puzzles and look for patterns in an effort to piece together a solution that will free you from the lab, insane asylum, gangster hideout or other themed room you’re trapped inside.
That is the basic idea behind the latest craze in entertainment — the escape room. The concept started with computer games and was first translated into live-action games in Asia. Though they’ve been in the U.S. for a few years, they are still relatively new to the Chicago area, with the number of venues mushrooming over the last couple years from just a few to dozens (see "Where to Escape for a Fun-Filled Hour" on opposite page).
The attractions typically cost between $25 and $30 per person, and people usually sign up in a group. Recommended ages vary, but for the most part, those under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. Most rooms can accommodate between 6-12 participants.
For those who are interested in the concept for a larger group, some room escapes offer mobile games. D.O.A. Room Escape in Villa Park for example, can bring its Survive the Titanic game to groups ranging from 20-150 players, who are divided into smaller groups competing to survive and beat the other teams to the available lifeboats.
"It’s a race against time and opponents," says manager Heather Bury. "We’re very excited we’ve been successful in accommodating a large group with that same sense of urgency you have in a locked room."
At most venues, a game master will be inside the room with participants or watching and communicating from a control room. Their role is to maintain safety, make sure props are working correctly, and sometimes give participants a nudge in the right direction.
Just as important as the clues are the stories or themes, which use props, music and other special effects to immerse participants in scenarios that range from a bank heist to a zombie apocalypse. Before the game beings, the game master will take a few minutes to explain the backstory.
Some venues base their rooms on real-life events, including Hidden Key Escapes in Naperville, where owner Steve Starzyk created a room inspired by a 1937 Chicago kidnapping case. "I enjoy coming up with a unique story — it’s a whole little narrative in one room. I try to stay away from cliché themes or things that are too scary."
At Challenge Accepted in Bloomingdale, two hour-long rooms are supplemented with a 20-minute room that changes theme every six weeks or so. Mother-son team Charlee Hoel and Matt Hanson launched the business a year ago. For most escape rooms, getting out within the time limit is not so easy, says Hanson. For example, the most difficult of their three rooms boasts only a 14 percent success rate.
However, solving the room is not essential. "Some people get upset when they fail, but the only failure I see is if you didn’t have fun," says Hoel.
Like many others in the business, Catherine Arne, owner of The Room Fox Valley, fell in love with the concept after going to other escape rooms. Arne believes the surge in popularity is due to the fact that the activity fills a void. "There are so few interactive entertainment options for adults, especially when it comes to doing something that is not physically interactive but interactive with your mind."
Escape room devotee David Bunge recently solved the Elf on the Shelf room at Challenge Accepted, one of 20 escape rooms he’s visited in the past couple years. He says he’s gotten hooked on the experience because he enjoys the challenge of solving puzzles and meeting new people.
Beyond the novelty of the experience and the excitement of racing against the clock, Bury believes there is something deeper to the appeal of the escape room. "In this day and age, we are inundated with technology," she says, "and it’s nice to unplug and do something with other human beings."
Where to Escape for a Fun-Filled Hour
Following are a sampling of the growing number of Escape Room venues in the western suburbs.
The Basement Escape Rooms
Aurora, 877 THE-ESCAPE
Themes: Traumatized (serial killer) and
Bloomingdale, 630 894-9300
Themes: The Lab and The Office
Cluedin Escape Room
Glen Ellyn, 331 481-9535
Theme: The Asylum
D.O.A. Room Escape
Villa Park, www.doaroomescape.com
Themes: The Garage (St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) and The Basement (serial killer)
Escape Factor Chicago
Oak Park, 708 943-7227
Themes: The Backward Room and The Timekeeper’s Trap
Escape For Fun
Wheaton, 630 337-1530
Theme: The Chamber
Aurora, 630 418-6381
Themes: Double Agent, Crime Scene, Mad Hatter
Hidden Key Escapes
Naperville, 630 442-0239
Themes: The Hideaway (kidnapping) and The Storage Room (stolen artifact)
iPanic Escape Rooms
St. Charles, 630 797-9099
Themes: Case 10-31 (secret agent), Diamond Heist, Abracadabra, Operation North Pole, Witchcraft
Mastermind Escape Rooms
Schaumburg, 847 453-4348
Themes: Sorcerer’s Secret, Bank Heist, Lost in Time, Outbreak
Lisle, 808 283-6129
Themes: Einstein Room and The Gallery
The Room Fox Valley
Batavia, 484 951-0475
Themes: Victorian Murder Mystery, Gangster’s Treasure, Blackout Motel
Riverside, 708 990-3029
Themes: Inheritance, Mad Scientist, Pirate’s Booty