A&F Staff Writer
Paying to be locked in a room is becoming a popular trend in Asheville.
These rooms are called escape rooms and the goal is to get out of them in an hour. Nearly half a dozen of them have popped up in the past year in Asheville.
Shelby Warford, the general manager of the Asheville location of Breakout, an escape room franchise, said the first escape room was built ten years ago in a house in Japan. From there the trend moved through Asia and Europe before finally making its way to the United States.
The first hugely successful escape room on the East Coast was built in Nashville, Tennessee. After going through this room, the creators of Breakout decided to launch their own business a year and a half ago in Tennessee. The Asheville location opened Memorial Day weekend.
“We were one of the first locations for Breakout in a tourism area and so we’ve really loved being able to get walk-ins, especially on the weekends,” Warford said. “People from all over come in and play.”
Breakout Asheville currently has three different scenarios: a kidnapping, a hostage situation and a casino-themed spy operation.
These three rooms can be completed for $25 a person.
Warford said because the kidnapping scenario is the most popular, one of the two rooms will close on Sunday in order to make room for a special Halloween room that will only be $18 and players have half an hour to escape.
Each room requires at least two participants with the maximum number being between six and eight.
Players begin the game handcuffed and blindfolded in the kidnapping and hostage situations and must release themselves before solving more puzzles to get out of the room.
The casino room has more of a James Bond theme and requires more math skills, Warford said.
The concept may seem relatively simple, but only 38 percent of people who enter can get themselves out. Of this 38 percent, most escape in around 40 minutes.
Although Warford has played all of Breakout’s scenarios and escaped all except the kidnapping room, she admits she relies more on her team and isn’t very good at them.
“One thing that’s interesting is watching people in the groups because we have a room that I would consider easier and they do horrible in it and then they’ll play something like Casino and almost beat the record. It’s just how everyone’s brains think differently,” Warford said. “I always suggest people come in with an eclectic group of friends because the more you have people thinking differently the better you’re going to be.”
Warford and the Breakout corporation have homegrown origins, but other Asheville escape rooms bring the idea from far away.
William Tharrington and Ashley Fox, owners of A-Escape, were living in Korea when they discovered escape rooms. Although they had heard of the video game version of escaping, they had never experienced a live-action room.
The two moved back to Asheville late last year and decided to create their own escape room, one of the first in Asheville.
A-Escape currently has two rooms, with a new scenario slated to open next month.
The first room is a casino mobster’s office where players are tasked with not only escaping, but also finding evidence against their boss, Mr. Belmonte. The room starts off in low light, making it nearly impossible to move through the room until the players figure out how to turn the lights on. This room has a 20 percent success rate with the fastest time being 37 minutes.
For the second room, Selachi Biotech Research Bunker, players have volunteered for clinical trials and now must find their way out of the room. With only a 10 percent success rate, this is the harder of the two. The fastest a team escaped from this room is 42 minutes.
The next room involves an eerie abandoned submarine.
All of their rooms are $15 per person.
“It’s a lot of putting two and two together and using different elements of the room, matching things together and making out-of-the-box connections,” Fox said. “Sometimes it is as simple as finding a key or a code somewhere, but mostly it’s outside the box thinking.”
Fox said A-Escape sees a lot of return visitors because people don’t realize how competitive they are.
The same week A-Escape opened last year, another escape room opened across town.
In the old Mission Hospital building, built in the late 1800s and used until 1947, several businesses have made their home, including Great Escape.
“It’s just me. I’m a one-woman show,” owner Tara Leammooka said. “It’s not my full-time gig yet, but I’m hoping one day it will be.”
Leammooka describes Great Escape as her baby and got the idea from a trip to New Orleans where she and her friends participated in a historically-themed escape room. She said the owners used local folklore to make their escape room stand out from others and it stuck with her.
When opening her business, Leammooka decided to take the same approach.
When she opened Sept. 25 of last year, her room centered around Will Harris, an escaped convict from Charlotte who came to Asheville on a shooting spree looking for his girlfriend, Molly. The goal was for players to escape and warn Molly that Will was coming.
Great Escape’s current theme focuses on the 1948 fire that killed Zelda Fitzgerald and other patients at Highland Hospital. After giving a short history of the event, players are tasked with going through the room and finding clues to figure out who was the arsonist and turn that name into a numeric code.
Leammooka said the creepiness and age of the building helps add intrigue to the room.
The room has a 40 percent success rate, which Leammooka said is high compared to the industry standard.
“Apparently they want more people not to get out,” Leammooka said, “but the fun of it is getting out and have a good time doing it, so that’s what I strive to do.”
Unlike the other rooms, Great Escape allows for five hints.
Leammooka said she has done everything herself, except for some heavy lifting her husband helped with.
She and the owners of A-Escape recommend each other and help one another out because they are the small players in town.
Weekday tickets for Great Escape are $20 per person and $23 on weekends. With a valid OneCard, the cost is reduced to $15 through October.
All of the escape rooms said they have seen a variety of people of all ages coming to try to escape. Although none of them have strict age limits, children under 18 need an adult either in the room or on the premises.
Booking in advance on their websites is also recommended by all of the rooms.
Each business and each room is different and needs a variety of problem-solving skills to escape, but one thing can be certain of all of them.
“Attention to detail is key,” Leammooka said, “but everything that is too detailed can get you easily sucked in.”