Imagine you’re wandering an old, deserted hospital. For years, rumors have floated around that it’s haunted. Recently, a renowned spiritualist went missing there after showing up to run paranormal investigations. Now, it’s up to you and your friends to find her. But you’re locked in, too, and as you sneak through the dark, echoing halls, you keep hearing something like footsteps following behind you …
Sound like a horror movie? Actually, it’s the set up for an escape room — a game where you pay for the privilege to get locked in a room for an hour and try to figure out how to escape. They may sound a bit odd when you first hear about them, but escape rooms are seeing a surge in popularity since they first hit the scene in the early 2000s. There are hundreds of escape rooms across the United States alone, according to Escaperooms.com, and thousands throughout the world.
If you’re interested in trying one out yourself, you’re in luck: Southern Minnesota has several to choose from. Rochester has two, Mankato has two, and Winona’s got one. Of course, once you branch up to the Twin Cities, there are even more options available.
The basic premise is simple: you and your friends are locked into a room (though you can always get out if you need to) that’s set up as some sort of scenario — a prison, a Mayan temple, a witch’s kitchen … the list goes on. The room is filled with riddles and puzzles that you have to find and solve within some set period of time (usually an hour) to unlock the door to the exit.
It’s that immersive experience that makes the game so fun, according to Ryan Steiner, who runs UNRAVELED Escape Room in Rochester with his wife Jackie.
“It’s the experience, the thrill of a challenge, a real-life situation,” Steiner explained. “People get this really unique experience in a situation that they would normally never find themselves in, working their 9-to-5 jobs, in their entire life. It gets them in this fantasy world where they can let loose a little bit and have a very memorable, thrilling experience with their friends and family.”
Chad King runs C & C Xscape Room in Winona with his partner Chad Duryee.
“This particular form of entertainment takes people off their devices and puts them in a situation where they not only have to engage with their surroundings, but each other,” King said.” It can create the kind of bonding experience we used to see on the largely defunct ‘game night.’”
Another plus is that pretty much anyone can participate, from kids to grandparents. Most rooms are built in such a way that there’s something for everyone, whether you’re great at riddles or you have a 5-year-old who can find crucial objects hidden in different places.
“With an escape room, everyone finds a way to be part of the team and contribute to the escape,” said Nathan Schroeder, who runs Escape Challenge in Rochester. “The target audience for all of the puzzles is adults. But the escape room missions work for almost anything. It’s not uncommon for us to have a Friday begin with corporate team building in the afternoon, then have a 13-year-old’s birthday party, then a church group, then a family with ages ranging from 10 to 70, then a bachelorette party to end the night. They all do the same challenge, and they all have a great time.”
While the challenges different groups face may be identical, the outcome can be very different, depending on how they want the experience to go, according to Colleen Depuydt, who runs Old Town Escape in Mankato with her sister and their husbands. May explained that some groups are more interested in doing everything themselves, even if it means not figuring out how to escape, while others are more interested in escaping, which means they ask for more hints and clues. Hints are available to every group — it’s just a matter of how many you want to ask for.
“We really enjoy feeling immersed in the experience, and a large part of that is making sure the hints and the guidance fits in well with the experience,” Depuydt said. “We take a lot of pride in trying to make the hints not just be, ‘Do this now.’ We try to make the hints an additional part of the puzzle. Every group needs hints.”
Another way the escape room experience might differ depends on how they’re set up for each game. Some rooms are offered on a per-person basis, while other rooms are rented out exclusively to a certain group. Kato Escape in Mankato, which is run by Elizabeth and Jason Hanke, does the latter, which Elizbaeth Hanke said was a deliberate choice so that it could be more family-friendly.
“When you’re mixed in with other people, that’s harder for families,” Hanke said. “We specifically wanted to cater more to families and friends, amongst themselves.”
On the other hand, if you’re a friendly sort who likes meeting new people, then exploring an open escape room may be more up your alley. It just depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
No matter what scenario you pick or how hard you make it, you’re sure to have fun … even if you don’t escape after all.
Breakout: Old Town Escape
Where: 403 N. Riverfront Drive, Mankato
Phone number: 507-779-7799
Cost: $25 per person
Breakout: Kato Escape Room
Where: 619 S Front St, Mankato
Phone number: 507-327-4045
Cost: $75 for the room (with additional costs for larger groups)
Breakout: C & C Xscape Rooms
Where: 79 W 3rd St., Winona
Phone number: (507) 481-4628
Cost: $20 per person
Breakout: UNRAVELED Escape Room
Where: 300 11th Ave NW, Rochester
Phone number: (507)-400-0386
Cost: $30 per person
Breakout: Escape Challenge
Where: 20 6th Street NW, Rochester
Phone number: (507)-722-2728
Cost: $28 per person
By Grace Webb