Growing escape-room scene puts puzzling spin on group fun
By JOHN WENZEL | [email protected]
PUBLISHED: January 28, 2015 at 10:14 am | UPDATED: April 26, 2016 at 3:07 am
As far as trends go, escape rooms can seem a bit mystifying.
If you’ve never played, the idea of shelling out $30 to be locked in a room for an hour and solve intricate puzzles is the opposite of what some would consider fun, relaxing or sane.
But thanks to adventurous, “MacGyver”-spirited customers and strong word-of-mouth, Denver has become ground zero for the international trend, with a half-dozen escape rooms rushing to open their doors in the metro area since September — despite the fact that most could be gone a year or two from now.
“We went on one of our first dates at a puzzle room in London called Hint Hunt,” said Sarah Cai, a 27-year-old, Singapore-born graphic designer and co-founder of Puzzah!, a local puzzle room. “It was one of the first to open there, even though the trend was already up and running in Southeast Asia.”
Cai and husband Derek Anderson, a 25-year-old software developer, fell in love with the concept. They chose Denver as a fertile market to open their high-tech version and, along with co-founder Ryan Pachmayer and $150,000 in funding, debuted Puzzah! in Lower Downtown in November.
They’ve got company. Centennial’s Clue Room was the first escape room to open in Colorado in September 2014, but it has since been joined in Denver by Epic Escape Game and Room Escape Adventures, along with Denver Escape Room (located in Northglenn) and Enigma in Boulder.
As with software startups or craft breweries, their rapid rise is a reflection of the founders’ passion for not only the concept, but the potential for profit.
“Seven months ago I’d never even heard of this,” said The Clue Room’s Todd Mata. “We were in Valencia (Spain) and looking for something to do with our teenage kids so they wouldn’t be bored out of their skulls.”
After visiting — and falling in love with — The X-Door in Valencia, Mata searched for a similar concept in Colorado, to no avail. A vice president at First Data in Greenwood Village, he and his co-founder/wife, Elisa, decided to invest about $35,000 in the concept.
Since opening in September, The Clue Room has built to an average of 400 customers per week who pay $28 a head to challenge themselves in themed rooms while a clock runs down the one-hour time limit.
Demand has been so high that Mata has already tripled his investment and plans to add a third room to the existing two as soon as possible.
“It forces people to start doing types of thinking they’ve maybe never done before,” Mata, 47, said. “People come out and it’s like they’ve completed a marathon, just having this sense of elation about it.”
Escape rooms balance the theatrics of a haunted house (minus the scares — for the most part) with familiar puzzling elements such as codes, keys, patterns, riddles and scavenging.
LoDo’s Puzzah! features a “Tick Tock” room, which counts down a bomb threat amid piped-in taunts from a Jokeresque villain. The room is a movie-style recreation of a theater’s backstage, complete with elaborate, custom-built props and antique-looking hardware. Another business, Epic Escape Game, offers rooms ranging from the zombie-themed “Dorm of the Dead” to the supernatural “The Other Side” and the historical-minded “Pikes Peak or Bust: Colorado’s Gold Rush.”
The setting helps sell the illusion: Epic opened on Jan. 15 in a 122-year-old, 7,000-square-foot mansion at 1750 Gilpin Street, which houses the five escape rooms (and numerous attached/secret spaces) along with a tidy gift shop and control room. There, owners and Alpine, Texas, transplants Michelle Fleming and Ron Subaba monitor players on closed-circuit cameras, granting them the occasional clue when requested via walkie-talkie.
“We’ve been building board games for my sons for the past 12 years,” said Fleming, 42. “We experienced our first clue room on vacation in September and just loved the idea.”
Fleming and Subaba, who still own a restaurant in Texas, decided to move to Colorado (where Fleming’s sons attend college) and invest about $40,000 in Epic Escape Game.
“We wanted to offer something that wasn’t here, something that’s already been proven in Seattle, L.A., New York and Miami,” Subaba said as he watched a group search through his “Pikes Peak” room for clues. “We try to use a mix of math, logic, tactile puzzles and wordplay, so it’s not like you’re just doing a bunch of Sudoku over and over again.”
Epic Escape Game’s different rooms sport varying success rates, anywhere from an average of 55 percent (for the family-friendly “Toys in the Attic”) to “Pikes Peak’s” intimidating 17 percent. (The group present for The Denver Post interview finished “Pikes Peak” with 10 seconds to spare.)
Most escape rooms are designed for groups of two and up, making them not only a potential date activity, but also something broadly marketable to families, birthday parties, gamers, church groups and, most lucratively, corporate planners looking for a break from the usual trust-building sales retreats… [Read the Full Article]