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Escape rooms bring puzzles to life
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Escape rooms bring puzzles to life

The room is dark, and as the timer by the wall counts down to zero, it feels like it’s getting darker. It’s definitely getting hotter, right? Your team’s resolve teeters on the edge. It would be so easy to give up. So easy to just walk away and laugh about it later.

But in the clutch, you all pull together. What did that clue say? What did those numbers mean? Why didn’t you see it before? You crack the code. You open the lock. You beat the room.

Is there such a thing as puzzle-solver’s high?

The global phenomenon of escape rooms has reached Tucson, with three companies offering participants unique interactive gaming experiences.

“You are put into this room and there are clues and puzzles and codes and things that you need to figure out,” said Nicolette Cusick of Will You Escape?. “You’re solving a murder, you’re foiling a terrorist attack or you’re defusing a bomb. There are all kinds of different themes.”

Cusick went through an escape room in Nashville and decided she wanted to bring the experience to Tucson. She opened Will You Escape? almost a year ago and has been busy since.

“It’s team building, it’s awesome, it’s addictive, it’s high energy. It’s just a lot of fun,” she said.

AJ Hughes, owner of Escape Room Tucson, said the name of the game doesn’t just refer to trying to get out of a puzzle room.

“You get to escape from the world for one hour. You’re totally immersed into fun — no cell phones, no responsibilities, nothing. You’re just focused on playing,” she said.

Hughes, who opened her business last August, said she was on vacation when she met several people from other countries who were traveling around the world doing escape rooms.

“I thought, ‘There might be something to this,’” she said.

Escape rooms, which first came to the United States in 2012, originated in Japan in about 2010 and quickly spread. According to Escape Room Directory there are more than 3,000 rooms across more than 615 cities in 63 countries.

Brad Gilbertson was looking for something unique to do for his birthday. He and his family visited Escape Room Tucson last weekend.

“When you look at the time, the time gets you, then you start panicking and really rushing,” he said. “Working as a team was the hardest part but everyone played a role.”

He would definitely be back, he said.

Tough but fair

Participants are asked to arrive early so they can listen to tips, do’s and don’ts, best ways to approach the puzzles and a warning or two about difficulty.

“We explain to them beforehand that escape rooms are hard,” said Michelle Dixon, co-owner of Great Escape Tucson. “We try to tell them up front not to feel bad if they don’t pass; it’ll just give you experience for the next room that you do.”

Owners said that once participants are inside the room they try to interact with them as little as possible, but all offer a set number of clues during the game in case players get really stuck.

Difficulty also varies between available scenarios, so players can take it easy on themselves or face a strong challenge. Still, more people run out of time before they solve the final puzzle than those that make it out, owners said, but that’s part of the game.

“We’re in a day and age that for participation you get a trophy, but that’s not always the case in real life,” Hughes said. “Sometimes people are disappointed, but sometimes it makes them more curious to come back and try it again.”

Cusick said there’s a balance, so that even if you don’t solve the room, you still have fun.

“I’ve done escape rooms before where you don’t escape and you’re feeling dumb the entire time. I don’t like that. I just want everybody to have a good time,” she said. “It’s all about the design of the room.”

All of the scenarios in the escape rooms in Tucson were created by their owners, which isn’t easy, they said. The process can take several months.

Ideally you have to design a room that different group sizes can solve, that is challenging enough to take at least 50 minutes to crack and that doesn’t bottleneck and discourage players for too long, owners said.

Patrick Casey, who recently visited Great Escape Tucson as part of a teambuilding exercise, said he would recommend it to any group, even if it was a little intense.

“At one point I just sat down on the floor and told them to keep going before getting back to it,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and you got to work together.”

Working as a team is critical inside escape rooms, owners said, where there is nowhere to hide and groups must balance out their members’ personalities.

“When people go into the room we can tell within a few minutes who is a natural leader, who’s the distractor, who’s the analyzer, who’s the over-analyzer, who’s the out-of-the-box thinker, who’s the one who never gives up and who’s the one that looks like they’re doing something but they’re not really doing anything,” Hughes said.

“Kids do a lot better than adults. Adults overcomplicate everything, try to make things too difficult,” she said.

Growing business

Dixon opened Great Escape Tucson with her best friend Teresa Watterson in October. At first business was slow, she said, but once they offered a Groupon promotion in December, they’ve been booked solid.

Hughes at Escape Room Tucson and Cusick at Will You Escape? said they have relied on word of mouth and social media to promote their businesses, which attract locals and visitors during evening hours and corporate clients during the day.

Cusick quit her day job in sales in October and is currently in Colorado, where she is opening a second location, and Hughes said she is already considering moving to a larger building to satisfy demand.

All have plans to swap out existing room scenarios to keep the experience fresh and attract repeat customers.

So far, all three seem to be doing well, and as long as people love playing games there’s room for all of them in Tucson, Hughes said.

“I don’t view it as competition; I think we complement each other. We all have different experiences; all of us have different themes,” she said. “It’s good that we can be in an industry that works well with each other.”

Contact reporter Luis F. Carrasco at or 807-8029. On Twitter: @lfcarrasco

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