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Get out! Popularity of escape rooms continues to grow

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Greg Little
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

JANESVILLE—Have you ever been trapped in a room full of people and all you wanted to do was escape?

Maybe you were stuck in a crowded elevator, or in line at the DMV. Perhaps the in-laws detained you for the holidays, or you were saddled with chaperoning at a One Direction concert.

Whatever the case, you're familiar with the practice of counting the minutes 'til it's over.

While you might have dreaded them at the time, those experiences will serve you well should you ever find yourself inside an escape room—one of the hottest trends in interactive entertainment. Meant to confound, confuse and challenge, the rooms are designed to test the wits and drain the brains of those who love a good mystery.

“It's for the person who wants a different kind of challenge, because it's not an everyday thing,” said KeriLynn Loftus, owner and operator of KL Escape Rooms in Janesville. “It's not for the disinterested, and it's not for people who are bored and just want something to do. It's something you motivate yourself to do, and it's aimed more at puzzle people.”

Staged along fictional themes such as jail cells, government buildings, post-apocalyptic bunkers and more, escape rooms call for live-action sleuthing, keen observation and advanced powers of deduction if they are to be successfully navigated. Participants enter in groups, are locked inside and then left to solve a series of puzzles using clues, hints and strategies to escape within a predetermined time frame (usually an hour).

“I did one (escape room) a few years ago with my kids in Europe and thought, 'Hey, I can do that,'” Loftus said. “Escape rooms are puzzle-oriented, and you're buying into a storyline. I felt I could come up with my own storyline without paying for it because I already own puzzles, so I saved tons of money.”

KL Escape Rooms offers four themes: the office, casino, morgue and Egyptian tomb. Loftus said the casino boasts an escape rate of 20 percent while the morgue and Egyptian tomb both hover around 10 percent. In a bit of true-to-life irony, no one has ever escaped the office.

Loftus also offers a special cipher challenge for those who want a different type of mental calisthenics.

“Basically, you play with codes, different ciphers and puzzle boxes, and if you solve the final puzzle challenge, the prize is a free, eight-person escape room visit worth $200,” she said.

Loftus' business model also includes a mobile escape room experience for business groups that who can't get to her brick-and-mortar location.

“I can do the casino and the office as mobile escape rooms, and I have a two-person challenge where you are cuffed together and have to find the final key,” she said. “This is an out-of-the-box way to help team building. It's good for anyone from the CEO to the janitor because nobody is more important than anybody else. Everybody has a different skill set.”

As their popularity grows, many escape rooms are becoming larger and more extravagant. Loftus, however, prefers keeping her rooms small, and she tries to limit groups to no more than eight people, when possible.

“Once you get more than eight in a room, people tend to stand around and do nothing,” she said. “I've been in escape rooms that were pretty grand, so there was no real motivation to get out. I think a little claustrophobia adds to the fun.”

Keeping the business manageable is another concern, as Loftus runs it alone, part time. There are no regular hours at KL Escape Rooms, and visits are scheduled by appointment only.

“I have a real job, so I can't always be there,” she said. “If I was running this to earn my living, I'd have to put more time into it. I'm doing this because I want to have fun, so I'm only as busy as I want to be.”



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