Try escaping from a locked room, for fun
How do you feel about getting stuck in a room for an hour, with no way to get out?
Actually, you can escape -- if you work with your team to piece together clues, solve puzzles and answer riddles that will unlock the door.
Escape rooms, as they're known around the world, are a new entertainment trend finding its way to the suburbs after huge success in other states, Asia and Europe.
"They create this intense, time-based pressure to accomplish a task," says Scott Nicolson, a professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada who has studied more than 175 escape rooms around the globe. "Communication is the strongest skill needed."
At least five escape room businesses have popped up in suburban office parks, strip malls and vacant downtown storefronts in the past 18 months or so. Some of the rooms -- which typically hold six to 12 people -- are sparsely decorated, but heavy on logic, word and math problems. Others are more theatrical, with elaborate props, actors, or audio and video effects.
In 2014, D.O.A. Room Escape in Addison was the second business of its kind to open in Illinois. The Room opened in Lisle last year, as did Challenge Accepted in Bloomingdale. Two Laser Quest locations, in Arlington Heights and Downers Grove, feature 45-minute escape rooms. Chicago is home to several more, and at least two new escape rooms are scheduled to open soon in the suburbs.
Experts say this is only the beginning.
"There's going to be a room escape pretty much everywhere," said John Bennett, co-owner of D.O.A. Room Escape. "When we started there were two of us. Now, there's about 15 to 20 (in Illinois), in one year's time."
Success, he says, "is going to boil down to the best quality, the 'wow' factor in the rooms, the best decor."
Themes are wide-ranging. Some are fantasy-based, like the King Arthur tale at The Chamber, a new escape room opening later this month in Wheaton. Others are historical, as seen in the Chicago St. Valentine's Day Massacre story told at Addison's D.O.A. Room Escape.
In Palatine, a building permit is being considered for a new Victorian-themed escape room called Puzzle Parlor. And while the phrase "escape room" suggests something scary, Nicolson says only about 10 percent of rooms are horror-themed.
Escape room owners believe there are numerous reasons they're becoming so popular. They offer visitors a chance to get off their smartphones and exercise their brains. They provide a unique team-building opportunity or fun alternative to a family night at the bowling alley or a date night at the movies. Perhaps most enticing -- and certainly most mentioned on Yelp and Google reviews -- is they give visitors an adrenaline rush.
"They're actually submerged into the drama," said Dave Zajicek, owner of The Room in Lisle, which actually offers two rooms: one with an Albert Einstein theme and another set up like an art gallery. "It's thrilling. The race to escape is kind of heart-pounding. Most people that do escape the room escape in the last second."
Escape rates actually hover at about 20 percent to 30 percent. If a group doesn't escape, the players are let out at the end of the hour -- or whatever time is designated -- by an employee, who often stays in the room with them throughout the course of the game.
Besides being challenging, Nicholson said, a well-designed escape room offers a variety of tasks that require a large skill set, so everyone in the room is "the hero" at some point. Owners suggest, however, that anyone visiting a room be high school-age or older. Some have waivers that need to be signed by parents.
If you don't come with enough friends, family members or co-workers to fill a room, you will likely be partnered with people you don't know. Room escape owners say even if you're surrounded by strangers, you're going to have to work together if you want to get out. They suggest picking a leader early in the game, to organize the tasks and keep everyone on track.
"The only way you're going to succeed is as a team," said Mark Murman, owner of The Chamber in Wheaton. "You can't be a person that hangs in the corner and doesn't do anything."
Admission prices average around $28 to $30 per person. It's a lucrative investment, considering the relatively low cost of setting up an escape room.
Nicolson says it's likely, then, that more will continue to open in the Chicago area in the coming months. In Toronto, he noted, there are already more than 70 escape rooms.
"The ones that will survive will do something different," he said. "For an escape room to thrive it needs to have something that makes it stand out."
If an escape room is not in a tourist area -- where new people are visiting all the time -- themes will need to be changed every six months to a year, to draw repeat customers, he said. Owners also will have to start putting more energy into corporate team-building events and private parties, two areas that are already fueling the success of other escape rooms in the U.S.
But current suburban escape room owners say they aren't phased by the prospect of future competition or challenges to come.
"I'm hoping it's not going to be a fad," Zajicek said. "I think it's here to stay. I do believe the good ones are going to stick around and the bad ones are going to fall by the wayside, just like anything else."