You have one hour to escape: Game rooms popular in big cities make their way to Portage, Kalamazoo

Across the airport on Portage Road is a boxy circa 1970 office building, so plain that you know it must be hiding something.

On the front are two words that raise more questions than answers: ESCAPE ROOMS. 

It's a building full of secrets.

Inside is a dim lounge-like lobby, also oddly 1970s with black vinyl furniture in a brown and black color scheme. It's not remarkable except for strange details. Is that a stack of Communist Cuban military caps on a table? Next to white lab coats and FBI hats?

Through a doorway is a "briefing room." Then a series of doors in a brown-painted cinderblock hallway. One room is open. Inside is a bank of monitors showing the interiors of the other rooms, via ceiling cameras.

Travis Ridenour, manager of Escapology, insists that we take no photos inside any of the rooms. "You could give it away."

The main secret is that people pay $25 to $28 to be locked in these rooms. Then they must figure out a series of puzzles to escape. Ridenour calls it "a video game that you step into." 

Sign a waiver -- "just so, you know, if people kill each other, we're not held responsible," Ridenour says mildly -- watch a video in the briefing room, and get "locked in" (fire codes prevent literal locking, so you can escape in an emergency) with up to five of your smartest friends. 

You have one hour to escape.

Escape room venues have spread around the world and the country. Escapology, which opened in May, is Kalamazoo county's first. Downtown Kalamazoo just got The Final Clue, which opened Dec. 2.

Escapology a franchise that now has eight venues across the U.S. and Ecuador. They develop the games for franchisees. 

Airway Fun Center saw the drab office building that they own sitting next to their more-colorful amusement center as a good spot for such intrigue and a new wing of their business took off.

Ridenour shows their booking schedule. The coming weekend was nearly booked solid. Business is "up and up and up," and very busy on weekends, he says. Local companies bring employees in during weekdays; they've discovered the rooms are natural locations for team-building exercises.

Airway's general manager Marc Wiese says it was a bit of a mysterious gamble, but, "We've met our expectations on it." 

The phenomenon has been big in Japan, Australia, and Great Britain for nearly 20 years now, Wiese says. It's been growing in major U.S. cities for the past few years. But in Kalamazoo county, "It was so new. We just went on a leap of faith, thinking it was just a good attraction," he says. 

"Our biggest challenge is trying to get people to know what it is." Airway's advantage is that they've got 300,000 customers a year coming for the bowling, arcade games, ropes course, go-karts, laser tag and other activities. Wiese has been marketing Escapology to their core clientele, taking them on tours of the rooms when he can.

He's learned that the rooms have rabid fans. "The people that like it, love it." They've had people drive down from Grand Rapids, after they've solved that town's escapes in The Great Escape Room and Escape Michigan.

The Rooms

Cuban Crisis. It's 1962, you're CIA, and you've got yourself stuck in Fidel's office. You have an hour to prevent nuclear war. No pressure. 

Th3 C0d3. It's now, you're FBI, and you're in a college dorm that's also the lair of l33t h4x0r Nitr0. But -- It's a trap! Crack the code before you get framed for cybercrime. Not for n00bs.  (Translations: The Code, elite hacker Nitro, "newbs" as in newbies.)

Antidote. A chemical weapons specialist has gone rogue. You're in a lab where he's been messing with a humanity-killing virus. The lab locks and the clock starts ticking down to "total decontamination," which will kill the virus and you. Formulate the antidote, save mankind, and remember to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.

Budapest Express. You're all cozy in your train car, riding across Europe, when -- Murder! Luckily, you're a famous French detective. Get to work finding the killer. And be quick about it, because the killer is going to make you his next victim.

Shanghaied. It's the day after Christmas, 1848, in Hong Kong. And you're celebrating by getting drunk in a disreputable tavern. Someone slips you something in your drink. You wake up to find you're far out into the Pacific, the unwilling employee of a vessel sailing towards Cape Horn. You got pickled, and now you're in a pickle. Can you jump ship at the next stop? Or will you get caught and hung from the mizzenmast as a warning to the other scurvy dogs?

Ridenour leads a quick walk-through of the rooms. Details jump out: A clip of a younger Donald Trump, mixed with shots of a riot, is playing on the TV in Th3 C0d3's cramped dorm room. In Cuban Crisis, Fidel has a baseball on his desk -- is it autographed? Framed photos of scientists are on the wall in the Antidote lab -- they're all numbered. Why?

Clues or red herrings?

Anything could be an important clue, Ridenour says. And anything could be a red herring, meant to take players in the wrong direction.

Customers sometimes call the day before a game, asking if they have to study Cold War history or the daily lives of 19th-century sailors. No, Ridenour says. 

All the games depend on teams' ability to solve puzzles, gather clues, deduce the meaning behind a scrap of code. Though it does help if players can get into a scenario -- younger players find Antidote and C0d3 more relatable because of their modern settings.

Antidote, Ridenour says, is the "easier" room. But that doesn't mean it's easy. He recommends first-time players start there. Otherwise, they'll be frustrated.

The rooms each have seven-to-ten puzzles to crack. Game masters watch the progress from the control room. If players are slow, they'll hear a voice from above, giving hints to move them along.

"We do want you to get out. Ideally, we want you to escape with less than ten minutes left." If players get out in time "it's a huge moral victory for them, and it makes them want to come back."

But not everyone is a winner. The hardest room is Shanghaied, with an 18 percent success rate, he says. 

The Gibson family of Plainwell were a bit too late breaking Th3 C0d3 on their recent visit to the escape room. They got stuck at the last step. Their game master showed them the solution, as a means to prevent total frustration. 

"The hardest part was just where to start. You just get in there and start looking around," eldest son Ben Gibson says.

Though his family lost, he enjoyed the challenge "to go in blindly and try to figure it out all yourself to save the day."

"It's not a confidence booster!" mother Cathrine Gibson says, laughing. "It's more difficult than you think." 

It gets a little stressful, racing to save the world. "You get a little snippy at each other!" Cathrine laughs.

It's a way to learn how to work together, Ridenour says. In fact, the rooms have become popular for local corporations' team-building exercises. 

But sometimes, "You get some couples that get in there, arguing." He'll be watching in the control room. "You'll see a lot of ladies giving the gentlemen the stern pointer finger," he says. 

Though beer and wine is served in the upstairs lounge on weekends, imbibing should probably take place after the game. "But it does happen," Ridenour says. "You'd be surprised how quickly people sober up when you put them in a situation like that." 

This isn't your ordinary passive entertainment, Sam Slottow, game master, points out. "You get to really move around and use your head a little bit, not just turn it into mush." 

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. Visit his website here.
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