Why roll dice or tap away on a controller when you can decode the secret message and find the hidden door yourself?
The hostess at Dare Escape Rooms instructs groups of 2-6 patrons to close their eyes as she leads them into the dark and musty room. After the door closes and a few awkward moments of fumbling for the light they’ll see a room that could be straight out of a private eye movie from the ‘50s. There’s a wardrobe, cupboards, a desk and a suitcase in the corner, all locked. The walls are covered with old maps and postcards and it won’t be long before the participants notice the clues.
Some might think this sounds like a good time on a Friday night. Others might a see it as a profitable business venture. Turns out it might be both, depending on your tastes and the local market.
The premise of an escape room is to plant several people in a room filled with puzzles, riddles and clues. The group is given a set of basic instructions. They have 60 minutes to escape, with hints provided as needed. The challenges faced might involve decoding the combination to a lock, piecing together a narrative, finding hidden compartments or any number of mysterious tasks.
“An escape room is an immersive environment in the sense that you are surrounded by a setting that utilizes embedded puzzles. They’re part of the scenery, part of the decorations. You need them to figure things out and escape,” said Jamie Carwile, co-owner of a local escape room.
In August, two escape room businesses opened in Eugene. First came Trapdoor Escape Rooms, created and run by Jamie Carwile and Gabe Billings, two long time friends and former stay-at-home dads. Dare Escape Rooms opened within the same week. It is owned and operated by Michelle Dee.
Dee first learned about escape rooms while visiting her daughter in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While looking for something to do, they came across an escape room called Enter The Room in Manitou Springs. Dee was amazed at how much fun she had, and afterwards the idea of spending her time surrounded by puzzles stuck with her.
“After I left there, all I could think about was puzzles,” said Dee. “Everything I saw was a puzzle, a mystery or a code. I just couldn’t shake it.”
Dee surprised her former co-workers at Grass Roots Marketing, a natural food broker, when she told them she would be leaving to start her own escape room business.
“It seemed to come out of left field,” said Sage Sharer, one of Dee’s former coworkers. “It didn’t seem like something she had been thinking about, but it sounded like she was passionate about doing it.”
Dee quit her job in March and began working to finance her new business.
“After talking to my husband, I told him, ‘I feel like this is my calling; I feel like I need to do this. It’s perfect for me and I want to offer it to Eugene,’” said Dee.
She faced difficulties at first as local landlords were hesitant to rent space to a business venture they hadn’t heard of before.
“Nobody in Eugene knew what an escape room was,” Dee said.
But according to Dee, her business has become popular since opening its doors. Organizations from across Oregon have booked sessions as part of team training and bonding exercises, including local Dutch Bros. store managers and a group of hospital staff members from Roseburg.
Dee currently runs two escape rooms at Dare Escape: the time-travelling World Explorer room and the zombie-infested Crazy Carnival Midway room. Dee designs and creates her own puzzles. She often finds inspiration by browsing local thrift shops and antique stores, looking for props and trinkets to incorporate into her puzzles.
The other location in town, Trapdoor Escape Rooms, is located on the northwest side of downtown Eugene.
Carwile and Billings have known each other since the late ‘90s. Carwile used to work as a middle school science teacher and Billings has a background in computer science, which the pair uses to help design and build their own puzzles using a combination of technology and clever thinking.
After visiting several escape rooms in San Francisco and Seattle, Billings began taking notes and writing down puzzle ideas of his own that he felt would make a good escape room.
“We were trying to find a way to take all these random puzzles and make them into an escape room,” Billings said. “After visiting a few, we felt they work better if there’s some unifying theme.”
Their escape room, The Mystic’s Lair, has a fortune teller theme, where patrons must solve a series of supernaturally themed puzzles.
Escape rooms in larger cities, such as Portland or Seattle, generally receive several bookings each day, but Carwile and Billings are satisfied with their growth so far. Currently, the two get roughly 5-8 groups per week visiting their business and have also been approached by local companies. They recently put together a puzzle-solving competition for the 45-person staff of the local Home Depot.
“As long as we’re not losing, or even just making a little bit of money, I would do this just as a hobby,” said Billings. “There’s some people who think this is a huge a cash cow and make a lot of money doing this, but the room makes enough to pay for itself … and a little more.”
Jeff Richards, a Eugene local and graduate of the University of Oregon, has visited both Dare Escape and Trapdoor’s escape rooms.
“The overall quality of the rooms was fantastic and I enjoyed my time there a lot,” Richards said.
Richards is excited to visit several escape rooms in Corvallis and Salem as well. The only thing he dislikes about escape rooms: “You can really only do each escape room one time. It’s kind of a unique experience and once you’ve solved the puzzles in a room, you’ve solved it.”
But that’s a problem that Carwile, Billings and Dee are working to counter. The three are constantly working on new puzzles and ideas for entirely new rooms. Carwile and Billings are currently planning to expand their business with a sci-fi themed room. Dee is also looking at a new location where she is hoping to open a speakeasy themed room.
Dee plans to stay open over the holidays to provide local Eugene families with a unique way to spend time together.
“We want to be open on Thanksgiving and Christmas when families are just kind of sitting around. When together with my family, I know I’ve wanted something other than just the movies,” said Dee. “Watching people interact with family they haven’t seen in awhile, there’s so many laughs, it’s so rewarding. I love it.”
If you’re interested in visiting one of these local escape rooms, Dare Escape Rooms, located at 2160 W 11th Ave #I, has two rooms for 2-6 people: the Explorer Room for $25 a person and Crazy Carnival Midway for $30 per person. You can learn more at dareescaperooms.com.
Trapdoor Escape Rooms, located at 436 Charnelton St., has one room, The Mystic’s Lair, for 2-8 people at $30 a person or r $150 for the whole room. You can learn more at trapdooreugene.com.