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The door slams shut and the room is plunged into darkness. Eerie red lights provide the only illumination in the small space. It is quiet except for the occasional chirp of a cricket and the persistent ticking of a clock. This is what it is like to be trapped inside an Aztec tomb.
Room Escape Williamsburg is a new business that invites groups of two to eight players into one of three themed rooms that they must escape using some creative problem-solving skills. It is one of the Williamsburg area’s first forays into an entertainment concept that is gaining popularity throughout the country, and its first public offering, the Aztec tomb, challenges groups to hunt for clues and solve puzzles in a frantic race against the clock.
While researching other escape room businesses, Room Escape owner Bill Reinagel discovered the concept began gaining popularity about two years ago, first in Japan and then Europe and, most recently, the United States.
The idea behind an escape room is simple: players have a limited amount of time - in this case, 60 minutes - to solve puzzles and unlock the secrets of the room. Not all of the room themes are literally about escape – another one of Room Escape’s rooms puts players in the role of bank thieves who must break into a safe before an alarm goes off – but all of the rooms include a confined space, a series of brain teasers and a time component.
The Room Escape Experience
When a group arrives at Room Escape, its members are immediately ushered into the preparation area.
“Many people who come in have never done it before. It’s a new experience for them,” Reinagel said.
With that in mind, many customers need to be told exactly how an escape room works. Puzzles can take different forms – logic challenges, word problems and number sequence are all escape room staples – and they often must be worked simultaneously in order to come up with the correct answer. Sometimes clues can be found simply by searching around the room, other times a complex sequence of events needs to be set in motion to get to the finish line.
“You know you have a goal to solve something or get out of a situation, so you’re always moving towards that,” Reinagel said. “Some puzzles are obvious- a simplified jigsaw puzzle- and some are multi-stage and not as obvious. It’s kind of like an onion, you have to peel back layers.”
A hidden panel in a piece of furniture may reveal a stone tablet covered in mysterious markings, but in order to make sense of them the players will have to find a decoder elsewhere in the room. The puzzles are meant to be challenging, but Reinagel advises that no special skills or knowledge are needed to solve them. Everything you may need, be it a dictionary or a calculator or a symbol decoder, is in the room with you.
Despite the resources at their disposal, many groups will still find themselves stumped at certain points, which is when a Room Escape employee will step in. Each room is equipped with cameras and microphones, so employees can monitor a group's progress. When players need a nudge in the right direction, the employee will use room's television screen, which normally displays the time countdown, to communicate hints. Each group gets three opportunities to ask for clues, but if they are in need of extra help, the person overseeing their game will intercede.
Despite having access to outside help, Reinagel believes the fun is in the challenge, and most groups will not "win" their Room Escape experience. He estimates the Aztec tomb will have about a 20-25 percent escape rate, while the bank heist will be slightly easier with a 35-40 percent success rate.
“You don’t want them to be too challenging, but you want people to feel accomplished when they do win,” Reinagel said. “We’re always looking for new, innovative ways to trick people.”
As for what kind of people excel at an escape room, Reinagel says the group element is key.
“The most successful groups are ones that have a lot of diversity to them, and they all bring their different perspectives and different experiences to the room,” Reinagel said.
A Versatile Entertainment Concept
Reinagel first encountered the idea of an escape room while visiting his son in Denver, Colorado, last November.
“We had a blast,” Reinagel said of his first escape room experience. “We left there saying this is something Williamsburg should have.”
Though escape rooms have already popped up in Virginia Beach and Richmond, Williamsburg was lacking a dedicated escape room business. The closest thing is Colonial Williamsburg’s Escape the King program, which takes place a few times a week in the Raleigh Tavern. Reinagel immediately began to see the potential for an escape room to tap into the many different groups of people that cross paths in the Historic Triangle.
Though Room Escape markets itself to families, tourists and even companies looking for a creative approach to team-building exercises, Reinagel says the main demographic he hopes to target is young adults.
“The target market is 20 to 30 somethings,” Reinagel said. “What do you do in Williamsburg? You go to a bar or you get out of town. Williamsburg really doesn’t have much to offer the young adults, so we wanted to offer something to keep them in town.”
Though the Aztec tomb and bank heist are the only two rooms that are currently operational, Reinagel hopes a third room themed around a virulent contagion will open by the end of the month. The building has room for five rooms altogether, though the fourth and fifth room experiences are still in the earlier stages of development.
“It’s a 12 to 18 month turnover on a room, mostly to accommodate locals or repeat business,” Reinagel said. “We’ll have five [rooms] and we’ll always be thinking about the next one to roll over.”
Reinagel recognizes the difficulty inherent in continuously designing new rooms and new puzzles to keep things fresh and varied, but it is a challenge he is happy to meet. As a former electrical engineer, he has always had an interest in puzzles, and he is excited about spreading his passion to as many people as possible
“Our main goal is to make the environment fun and immersive,” Reinagel said. “The concept has broad appeal I think. We think it’s very versatile. In the summer, it’s the tourist season, and come the fall, the William & Mary students would be a great market for us to expand on. And locals year-round, of course. There’s something for everyone.”
Room Escape Williamsburg is located at 1215 Mount Vernon Avenue, Williamsburg VA, 23185.