This story comes from our March 2017 issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.
A global phenomenon breaks out in Boca and beyond.
Written by Thomas Yair and photographed by Aaron Bristol
When asked about the popularity of their businesses, the owners of Boca Raton’s escape rooms offered variations on a common theme: People still want to have fun I.R.L.—in real life.
“It’s just one hour with no cellphone,” said Laszlo Sandor, owner of QRoom Escape. “Google is not going to help you.”
“For a whole hour, there is no thinking about anything but playing the game,” added Master Escape Room’s Sandra Matsuoka. “Nobody is looking at their phones. You are there.”
“People want to put down their electronic devices and actually communicate, go back to the way it was,” said Jason McGuire, of Try-N-Escape. “We’ve become an antisocial society because of social media. And I think people want to break free; they just don’t know how. So they’re turning to stuff like this.”
Indeed they are. Escape rooms—a kind of physical video game in which participants solve a series of puzzles in order to break out of an enclosed space in an hour’s time—have become a booming 21st century industry. The global phenomenon began in Asia circa 2008, flourished in Eastern Europe and eventually expanded to the United States.
At least four rooms operate in Boca Raton alone, with many others sprouting in West Palm Beach, Broward County and Miami-Dade. Although the themes may vary—from the Wild West to alien invasions to Victorian gumshoeing—much of the formula remains the same. There are always challenging padlocks, hidden objects and teamwork-intensive puzzles. The owner will inevitably be watching you from surveillance cameras, dispensing clues when necessary through primitive walkie-talkies. That’s right, kids: no texting!
Just like any other art form, some escape rooms are more exceptional than others. As a Zagat-style public service, we attempted five of them, judging each on their ambience, puzzle variety and difficulty level. Now get cracking!
3350 N.W. Second Ave., Suite A2, Boca Raton; 561/409-4930
ROOM PLAYED: Welcome to the Wild West
ESCAPED IN: 59 minutes
PREMISE: You’re a team of bandits caught in a quagmire. On the one hand, you’ve just pulled off the biggest bank heist in Texas state history. On the other hand, two members of your posse, who spent the morning wantonly throwing around their pilfered cash, have wound up in the hoosegow. The objective is twofold: first to break out of the cell and join your fellow thieves, and then to retrieve the moneybag and escape the prison in the hour before the sheriff arrives. Clues hidden by a former inmate light the way.
SCENIC DESIGN: This escape room is carefully chiseled from outlaw mythology, evoking the austere jailhouses of many a showbiz serial or paperback western. Faux-windows, pictures of famous real-life bandits and wall-mounted six-shooters add ambience and more. The pokey, range-life background music adds rustic color. (4/5 stars)
PUZZLE VARIETY: The seemingly tight spaces of Welcome to the Wild West belie the multitude of puzzles required to escape. Many of the clues are grounded in numerology, so expect the supplied whiteboard—Try-N-Escape is the only escape room I visited to offer one—to resemble a madman’s math equation by the journey’s end. Even better is the mousetrap-like complexity of some of the room’s other reveals, requiring plenty of ambitiously executed moving parts. (5 stars)
DIFFICULTY: You get three free clues, and you’ll likely use them all and then some. But even in hindsight, each puzzle logically checks out, and enough subtle nudges are embedded in each enigmatic breadcrumb that the larger the group, the better the chance of total self-sufficiency. (4/5 stars)
OVERALL: Whether you begin the mission on either side of the bars, this pleasingly retro jailbreak offers a smattering of thrills to accompany its heady puzzlers, and its healthy balance of challenges caters to a broad spectrum of skill sets. (4/5 stars)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: “High Noon,” Louis L’amour novels
The Delray Escape
900 Linton Blvd., Suite 201A, Delray Beach; 561/501-4046
ROOM PLAYED: Area 51
ESCAPED IN: 37 minutes
PREMISE: You’re a team of crusading journalists hoping to finally expose the truth about the U.S. government’s most clandestine military base. But once inside Area 51, you accidentally open the containment cells for the extraterrestrial entities and prompt the base commander to launch the self-destruct system, set for T-minus 60 minutes.
SCENIC DESIGN: The Delray Escape is one of the region’s newest escape rooms, and its Area 51 feels freshly minted—appropriately immaculate for an experimental alien breeding ground. An atmosphere of panic, complete with discarded flak jackets, hazmat material and bullet casings, permeates the rooms. But in other ways, particularly the room’s tacky presentation of an inflatable ET, the Delray Escape betrays its budget. (3/5 stars)
PUZZLE VARIETY: Hidden objects and seemingly unbreakable locks—the meat and potatoes of Escape Room 101 formula—rule the day, but the best puzzle is one requiring the planning, dexterity and communication skills of multiple team members. (3/5 stars)
DIFFICULTY: As the first escape room I played, I expected to suffer from a significant learning curve. But the escape was remarkably stress-free; I’ve been trapped longer in malls. Part of the problem is the comparative dearth of puzzles: There just aren’t enough challenges to extend the experience and heighten the tension. (2/5 stars)
OVERALL: Area 51 is an acceptable introduction to escape rooms, but experienced escapees may be turned off by its relative simplicity. For UFO buffs like yours truly, however, it deserves brownie points. The truth is out there! (3/5 stars)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: “The X-Files,” Whitley Strieber books
4770 N.W. Second Ave., Boca Raton; 561/571-2423
ROOM PLAYED: The Mind Eraser
ESCAPED IN: Did not escape in time
PREMISE: It could happen to anybody: you’re partying at a hip nightclub, and you find a cool bartender who offers you and your friends free shots. And another round. And another. Eventually, as the witching hour approaches, you’re too plastered to drive. The bartender has an answer for that, too. He calls his buddy, an Uber driver, for a lift. Except you don’t go home. You wake up in a strange room, chained to a bathtub containing a bloody body, and must escape within an hour.
SCENIC DESIGN: The clingwrap-muffled mannequin in the tub is the first of many effectively gruesome details. Note the hatchet lodged in a refrigerator, the cryptic messages scrawled in blood, the severed doll heads sitting atop the fridge and mounted on walls like taxidermy. Harsh, percussive sounds, distant screams, and the iconic score from “The Exorcist” pipe through the speakers. Crafted from serial-killer lore, this is very much a place you want to leave. (4/5 stars)
PUZZLE VARIETY: The Mind Eraser relies less than most rooms on hidden objects and spatial-configuration skills. Logic and deduction from the murkiest of visual clues will save the day. The amateur gumshoes in your group will be your most valuable asset. (3/5 stars)
DIFFICULTY: The sub-average rating for this metric isn’t because the room is too easy—quite the contrary. The puzzles are absurdly challenging, relying on esoteric clues that will be difficult for even the most seasoned escape-room enthusiast to decode. Expect a lot of help from the ownership, whether you ask for it or not. (2/5 stars)
OVERALL: The near-impossibility of solving some of the game’s final puzzles yields to frustration, which impacts the fun factor. Also, more consideration to story could have connected the arbitrary setup with the gritty, B-horror theme. But some witty, genuinely shocking surprises reveal a clever craftsman with better games ahead of him. (3/5 stars)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: “Saw,” “American Horror Story: Asylum”
The Master Escape Room
1700 N. Dixie Highway, Suite 126, Boca Raton; 561/571-5381
ROOM PLAYED: The Egyptian Tomb
ESCAPED IN: 59 minutes
PREMISE: In an organized expedition to Egypt, you inadvertently stray from your group and wind up in a locked tomb containing the sarcophagus of a long-dead pharaoh. Like
a zombie, the mummy is about to rise again. Can you make it out of the room in time?
SCENIC DESIGN: No expense was spared in transforming pedestrian office space into multi-tiered Egyptian catacombs. From the carefully considered architectural details to the wall décor, the design revels in the colors and iconography of ancient folklore, each element as mysterious as it is iconic. The lighting, likewise, is dynamic, and its multiple textures are integral to the mission. (5 stars)
PUZZLE VARIETY: A concerted effort to appeal to right-brain and left-brain thinkers pays off in The Egyptian Tomb’s eclectic array of puzzles. Whatever your specialized skill set, from geometry to numerology to word games, expect to utilize it. (5 stars)
DIFFICULTY: It’s possible, with an experienced, razor-sharp team, to escape this room without assistance. Ours was not this team. We accepted a few nudges from the voices behind the curtain, but when the Eureka! moments arrived, the puzzles’ logic proved ironclad and above reproach. An escape room should be neither cakewalk nor prison cell, and The Egyptian Tomb strikes an ideal balance. (5 stars)
OVERALL: Constructed with nimble intricacy, narrative cohesion and copious forethought, The Master Escape Room might just be the region’s standard-bearer. (5 stars)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: The “Indiana Jones” franchise, Dan Brown novels
The Adventure Vault
3350 N.W. Second Ave., Suite A4, Boca Raton; 561/922-3881
ROOM PLAYED: Death and Breakfast
ESCAPED IN: Did not escape in time (but so close!)
PREMISE: With a thunderstorm crackling and pouring overhead, what group of road-trippers can’t resist the warmth and refuge of that quaint B&B just off the interstate with a vacancy to spare? Rotten luck: the proprietor is secretly a psychotic cannibal, and you’re set to be the next morning’s mystery meat. Escape his dungeon in an hour’s time, and you can keep your appendages.
SCENIC DESIGN: Not only is Death and Breakfast appropriately murky and gruesome—you start the game with the restricted aid of a dental-chair light, leaving the blood-streaked walls, upturned cockroaches and dismembered organs in the dark—it’s also mordantly funny in its embrace of serial-killer kitsch. The room is chock full of detritus, so be patient: there are just as many red herrings embedded in its nasty cubbyholes as there are clues. (5 stars)
PUZZLE VARIETY: Any good escape room is a thinking person’s room, but Death and Breakfast is especially cerebral. Directions are issued on cryptically written hidden missives you’ll need to decode—the more brainpower the better. Truthfully, puzzle variety is stronger in other rooms I explored, but the merits of Adventure Vault lie in the linearity of its approach. One clue leads to another, without the brain-fogging distraction of multiple puzzles clouding your consciousness at the same time. (4/5 stars)
DIFFICULTY: Even with stellar help in this escape room—my wife and I worked with Carbonell-winning actress Margery Lowe and her husband, former Caldwell director Clive Cholerton—we missed the deadline by an excruciating one lock. But there’s an important caveat: unlike the other rooms, we didn’t have any help along the way from the owners. The fact that we solved all but one puzzle with nothing but our smarts and our wiles is a testament to the game’s appropriately solvable architecture. (5 stars)
OVERALL: A compelling narrative through-line, inspired ambience, and a real doozy of an opening setup propel one of the region’s finest rooms. Whether it’s doing any favors to the bed-and-breakfast industry is debatable.
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: “Psycho,” the 2004 musical-horror-comedy “Dead & Breakfast”
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