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story.lead_photo.caption Lance Lewsader shows an escape room with an academic theme at Bolt NWA in Bentonville. Teams have an hour to find clues to solve a mystery and make their escape. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

Five friends are locked in an unfamiliar room. Quickly, but systematically, they peer under rugs and behind artwork, open every drawer and inspect every nook and cranny for clues to help them solve a mystery and escape the room. And they have just one hour to do it.

This is a scenario in a typical “escape room,” an interactive sleuthing game in which two or more players must solve puzzles and crack codes to find the real or metaphorical key to freedom. (In reality, players can leave the room at any time if necessary.) The games may also be called room escapes, escape or exit games, or adventure rooms.

From humble beginnings as point-and-click computer games, escape rooms crossed into the third dimension to become real-life adventures. Starting in Japan in 2007, the live games reached the United States in 2012. The number of escape rooms nationwide grew from about 24 in 2014 to more than 2,300 today, according to gamers David and Lisa Spira, who write about the industry on their blog, Room Escape Artist.

Arkansas has about 27 escape rooms, according to the Spiras’ database. All have websites describing the rooms, their level of difficulty, number of players allowed and price, and let players book online. Starting these businesses takes time, money and imagination, but owners say they can be lucrative and fun to operate.

While escape rooms are a year-round business, Halloween marks the start of the busy season for most. Thanksgiving and Christmas bring lots of families to the venues. Some owners, like Michael Goff, co-owner of Mystery Mansion Escape Room in Little Rock, spend much of October planning and installing Christmas-theme rooms that will open in November.

Goff and his fiancée, Deanna Fleming, own the historic Foster-Robinson House on south Broadway, and make the home and its grounds available for weddings and special events. After seeing how popular escape rooms were in other cities, they decided in 2015 to build their own. And earlier this year, they bought Central Arkansas Escape Rooms in North Little Rock.

Goff’s enthusiasm resonates over the phone as he talks about coming up with themes, working out the puzzles, and then designing and building what is essentially a theatrical or movie set.

“When I was about 18, I wanted to be a special-effects artist,” Goff said. Instead, he went into the trucking industry, and sold his third-party logistics company to start Mystery Mansion.

Now, at midlife, he gets to fulfill that youthful dream. In fact, he’s now building escape room sets around the world as a separate business.

Mystery Mansion operates daily. The clientele is “anybody and everybody,” Goff said. “Monday through Friday is corporate. The weekends are families and friends.”

When playing a room, he said, “you’re interacting with your family, trying to solve problems together.” Goff described poignant reviews by people overcome with emotion as they left with their families because “they found something they all loved to do and reconnected as a family.”

The house itself, once home to politician Joe T. Robinson, provided inspiration for one of the three rooms. Foster’s Fortune casts players as Secret Service agents looking for stolen Double Eagle coins from 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who actually visited the house, signed the executive order taking the country off the gold standard and made these coins a rarity.

History also inspired Charles Mowrey, owner of Escape Room 13 in Eureka Springs. The room’s theme is based on a 1922 bank robbery in the resort town.

“I kind of created what we call alternative facts,” Mowrey said. “It’s not true, but it feels like it could be,” he added. A second room, currently in development, is also set in the Prohibition Era, and will have a speakeasy theme.

Mowrey bought a log cabin resort in Eureka Springs after years in the corporate world. When he noticed a vacant building for sale downtown that included a coveted parking spot, he jumped on it, but didn’t know what to do with it until he read an article about escape rooms in Entrepreneur magazine.

Renovations took nearly two years, and he still had to build the set. Mowrey got advice from an escape room owner in Colorado, and had a consultant look over the plans. Escape Room 13 opened July 8, 2017, and Mowrey left his corporate job that September.

Mowrey said the set alone cost “conservatively” $25,000 to $30,000. His biggest expense, though, is staffing. He has two employees, or game masters, and may hire a couple more when the second room opens.

Thousands of people have played the room, Mowrey said. Most are first-time players, and the biggest demographic is “30-somethings” and their children. For these reasons, he said, “I’m going for the fun factor, not the scary factor.”

Lance Lewsader, who owns Bolt NWA in Benton-ville with his wife, Nancy, worked in information technology when he learned about escape rooms from a co-worker about three years ago. There were only a couple in Northwest Arkansas then, and he felt there was room for another.

Bolt NWA’s five rooms have different themes, but all tie in to one story. Like most escape rooms, they are monitored through a camera system, and the game masters can slip hints to players to help them along.

Lewsader employs nine people with a wide range of skills, and said the business averages about 10,000 players a year.

He said what attracts people to escape rooms is the mystery and intrigue. “The not knowing [what’s going to happen] gives you the adrenaline rush,” he said. “You don’t really learn a whole lot until we take you into the room and then shut the door and you’re off.”

Starting in Japan in 2007, the live games reached the United States in 2012. The number of escape rooms nationwide grew from about 24 in 2014 to more than 2,300 today, according to gamers David and Lisa Spira, who write about the industry on their blog, Room Escape Artist.

Print Headline: Escape rooms big business in state; Halloween a busy season for sleuthing games teams play

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