Across the nation, there’s been a boom in escape rooms as people seek out unique, interactive entertainment that challenges their problem-solving abilities. Escape rooms originated from video games in which players had to solve mysteries and interact with other players within a “location” to move to the next level. In 2007, a Japanese company took this concept further by creating the first live escape room, in which participants were locked in a room for an hour and had to solve a series of problems in order to escape.
The idea quickly took root, with escape rooms popping up across Asia and Europe. The first escape room in the United States opened in Seattle in 2013. Today, there are more than 2,800 escape rooms across the country.
Creating a fun, challenging experience is the name of the game. Why just sit and watch a show when you can be part of the act… and prove you’re the smartest person in the room (assuming you solve the puzzle)? It’s also an affordable way to have fun with friends—generally under $30 per person. Here in the Peoria area, three local couples have opened successful escape room businesses in the past two years, with hundreds of customers experiencing the thrill each week.
On a weekend getaway to Indianapolis several years ago, Michelle and Steve Rouland stumbled upon an escape room and decided to have a go at it. “We had such a blast finding objects and solving the room’s puzzles,” Michelle recalls, “we immediately booked with another escape room company for the next day.” They were hooked.
After researching the concept and planning entire vacations around escape room adventures, the couple opened Escape60 at the Studios on Sheridan, with Michelle creating the puzzles and Steve designing the rooms. “It’s something we could wrap our brains around and do together!” she notes. “Now, any time we leave town we do rooms. We have done 40 to 50 rooms around the country.”
Mike and Kyli Whittle of Escapetown Peoria also caught the “escape bug.” They’ve been to more than 80 escape rooms, traveling as far away as Orlando, Florida, and even spent their third wedding anniversary playing four escape rooms in St. Louis. “We love the adrenaline, problem-solving, teamwork and creativity that goes into each one—and they’re all so unique!” Mike exclaims. “We wanted to combine our love of escape rooms with our love of Peoria, and add another fun entertainment option locally.”
Matt Ruder and Sara Fickes, owners of Gone in 60 Escape Games in Peoria’s Warehouse District, had a different experience upon visiting an escape room a few years ago. “We were disappointed in the lack of immersion,” Sara explains, “and we knew we could create an experience that would really entertain people.” And they had the chops to do it, having created sets and storylines for a local haunted house through one of their other companies, Haunt Scheduler. Last year, the couple expanded their experiential offerings even further when they opened Gone Axe Throwing.
Creating Unique Adventures
No escape room experience is like any other, and there’s plenty of variety here in Peoria—each business has a variety of themed rooms to choose from. Whether escaping a morgue, solving international spy conspiracies or breaking out of jail, there’s a puzzle for everyone. “It’s a great entertainment option for visitors who are in town… and looking for something different to do,” adds Mike Whittle.
Participants are locked in a room and given one hour to escape by solving multiple riddles, with clues strategically placed throughout the space. Just when you think you’re close to getting out, another clue presents itself—it’s exciting and a bit unnerving. If you’re a newbie, don’t despair: game masters are on hand to provide additional clues if you hit a roadblock.
“It is such a unique experience that has the group talking about what happened… for a long time after. The rush of adrenaline you get from playing together can be addictive, in a good way,” Michelle Rouland notes. “I think people are looking for an interactive activity to unplug from their devices for an hour, and this is a great remedy.”
While escape rooms are billed as entertainment venues, they also make for a great team-building exercise. By working together, participants build trust and camaraderie, and local businesses are recognizing the benefits. Eight people from the Business Resources Team at Caterpillar’s Morton location recently visited Escape60 for this purpose. “We didn’t know what to expect going in, but it was a great experience,” explains staff accountant Jerry Ailshie. “Everyone worked together to solve the puzzle, and we escaped with about five minutes to spare!”
Plan Your Next Escape
Once you conquer one room, you’ll probably want to try another. It’s addictive, after all. And with a trio of establishments, each offering three unique rooms, there are plenty of places from which to escape locally. But be sure to reserve your spot in advance—their popularity is catching on. And for good reason: it’s rewarding for escapees and hosts alike. “We love providing a great experience that came from our minds and hands,” notes Sara Fickes. “We also love seeing our customers’ reactions when they enter and exit the rooms.”
Realizing there’s room for everyone, the competition amongst local escape rooms is friendly. “We have had an absolute blast playing the other rooms in town,” notes Mike Whittle.
“We encourage everyone to try the other local escape rooms,” Fickes adds. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget. PM