The relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions have allowed people to increasingly go out and resume normal lives. But some are using that freedom to lock themselves into a room for fun.
Escape rooms — a unique and often themed experience where players must solve puzzles and find clues to unlock the door to their prison — have presented a surprisingly COVID-safe opportunity for those who have been cooped up for the last two years to have fun and let off some steam.
“We’re doing better than we were before the pandemic. It kicked off really fast,” said Emily Stewart, the venue manager at Escapology in Tewksbury, part of one of the largest escape room chains with locations around the world. “We get a lot of different types of people, which is the most interesting part. We get kids, we get adults, we get teenagers. People love to do it as a family, team-building, corporate events, and people come on date nights. It grabs a vast majority of people.”
The first escape rooms were opened in the early 2000s, inspired by “escape the room” video games where the player must, as the name suggests, find their way out of a locked room using the items around them. They began to take off in the mid-2010s, and in February 2021, there were 2,080 escape room facilities in the United States, according to Room Escape Artist, an industry organization.
Escape rooms are usually completed by a team of players, either who come together or strangers paired up to make a larger team, who must collaborate to solve the puzzles. After an introduction by the game master, the players are locked in the room and have a limited amount of time, usually an hour, to solve it. Puzzles can include hidden objects, codes, different types of locks and sometimes physical challenges. Staff usually monitor the players from outside and can give hints if they get stuck.
At the Tewksbury Escapology, which opened in October 2017, there are five escape games currently available from the company’s wide selection. Stewart explained that each location is able to choose what games they want to offer, so while there is some overlap between locations, each one is a different experience.
Their most recent addition is a licensed game titled “Scooby Doo and the Spooky Castle Adventure,” complete with characters from the classic cartoon, which opened last spring and has proven to be their most popular game. In it, players must figure out who has kidnapped the baroness from a mansion in the town of Crystal Cove. The room includes screens from which the characters offer new clues and hints and many of the puzzles are inspired by villains and locations from real Scooby Doo cartoons.
Escapology shut down twice during the pandemic, in March 2020 for four months and again in December 2020 for another three months. When they were open, however, Stewart said they had some advantages compared to other types of businesses and even other escape rooms.
“All our games are completely private. We don’t have strangers together,” she said. “Most of our procedures stayed the same. We were always super into cleaning … so it didn’t affect us as much as some other escape rooms. It just impacted our sales.”
At Curious Escape Rooms in Fitchburg, the pandemic had a bit more of an impact. Owner Audrey Pendleton-Chow and her husband, Jeremy, made the decision to shut down on March 15, 2020, and didn’t open their doors again until August 2021. During that time, they supported themselves through grants from the city and the state and through their other business, We the Enthusiasts, selling wholesale escape room “passports” to escape room owners around the world.
“It was enough that we were able to voluntarily stay closed until we felt like it was appropriate,” Pendleton-Chow said.
For safety, Curious Escape Rooms is still requiring visitors to wear masks until they are locked in the room with their teammates. They are also using temperature checks and have air purifiers in the room.
Pendleton-Chow previously worked in the film industry designing sets. She played her first escape room in 2015 and loved the experience, much to her surprise.
“It was designed for a large group of people with a variety of skills. Everyone was busy doing things and I felt like an asset in our team,” she said. “But it wasn’t a very interesting theme or set. So I thought, OK, we can combine these two ideas and create really interesting, immersive worlds that you get to explore and snoop around in.”
Curious Escape Rooms currently has one available room, “The Dollhouse,” where players are “shrunk” down to doll size and trapped inside with toys and dolls. A life-size Barbie doll sits at the kitchen table set with plastic food, and in another room, the full wall is taken up by a screen on which a video recording of children playing is projected, completing the illusion that the players are truly inside the dollhouse looking out into the children’s playroom.
Curious Escape Rooms’ other game, “90s Video Store,” was originally designed for larger groups, but they are reworking it in order to make it easier for small groups and avoid combining strangers into a single game, Pendleton-Chow said.
She added that in running the escape rooms, she loves to watch the players’ reactions to the sets she designed, something she never got to see when making films.
“What a joy in escape rooms that people actually stop and listen and say, ‘What does that mean?’” she said. “We get to see live the reactions that people have to our experiences … I’ve always enjoyed getting reactions out of people and I get to do that all the time by running our games. It’s definitely validating and satisfying.”