by Alexandra Felton
photography by Celeste Drake
Before Alice ever discovered the rabbit hole to Wonderland, she knew that her curiosity would ultimately drive her to jump. Once she did, she was thrown into a world where she had to chase a White Rabbit, solve riddles from a Mad Hatter and choose haphazardly which way would lead her home by the guidance of a disappearing Cheshire Cat. Even through her trials and tribulations, she made friends, learned how to look out-of-the-box and survive the experience. But . . . could you?
Secretive locations have been spotted throughout Southern California that present a new form of themed entertainment called “escape rooms.” These rooms can be located in discrete locations like warehouses, business offices and abandoned strip malls. You have probably driven past dozens of them for more than a few years.
While some people may have heard of them, they are not aware of their purpose or how to have the experience. Some may believe these rooms to be the same as haunted houses, but they do not have the same objectives. Here are the key differences:
A haunted house is always going to be a scare-themed experience that involves actors, various props and scary sound effects to make one jump and scream while walking on a designated path from beginning to end. The objective is to get through the haunted house with or without the help of friends. Plus, normally, these houses are Halloween themed.
An escape room is completely different. First of all, do not let the name “escape room” fool you. Professionals in the industry also call them “puzzle rooms” or “adventure rooms” in order to clarify their various objectives. Each room can be themed differently with options ranging the spectrum of murder mystery to fairytale journey. Like a video game, teams are invited into a room and tasked to solve certain objectives in a unique area filled with hidden clues. This is an extremely immersive experience where teamwork is crucial. While a haunted house requires one to walk the path through the house, the escape room requires one to solve the “puzzle” in order to gain a victorious exit. Teamwork and clue-solving skills required . . . just for that added bonus.
The escape room fascination spread from Japan to Europe before arriving on American shores a few years ago. Each room is themed like your favorite movie or video game come to life, and filled with intricate clues and gadgets that teams—usually two to 10 people—have to solve in order to win. Every room provides a certain amount of clues as long as one listens and works as a team.
How do you begin this experience? Here is a common recipe for an escape room. Oh, and no cell phones are allowed during the experience. That may be the only scary part of this experience for some, so you have been warned.
Getting a group of your friends together at the same time is never easy, so take my advice and plan accordingly. When you book the appointment online or over the phone, you need to ask about availability and how many people are allowed in a room. Each room differs in size, so it is important to try and get your squad together as soon as possible. If you only have a couple friends who are available—or want to go solo—the room operators will most likely pair you with another smaller group so everyone can enjoy the experience.
Not all escape rooms are scare-themed. A good number are, though, so choose your experience wisely . . . like how you would choose a hot sauce at a Mexican restaurant. The three escape rooms near the University of La Verne are “Chronos” in Pomona, “The 13th Room” in downtown Pomona and “Trapped!” located in Upland. Each company has such a different approach to its craft. They could have multiple rooms in effect. For instance, The 13th Room has a wizard-themed experience called “Alchemy and Wizardry,” a Sherlock Holmes-themed room as well as a haunted hotel experience called “The 13th Room.”
Trapped has an Alice in Wonderland themed room where you are tasked to find your dog that dove through the rabbit hole as well as “The Lair of the PuzzleMaster” and “Sector 13.”
Chronos has a large murder mystery room that leads you through creepy corners and frightening props with your friends. Each of the venues has different prices and different themes, so research and call in advance for an appointment.
Once you corral your team together, you will check in and receive a rule debrief. This debrief is important, because these rooms are just as fragile as they are interactive. Each room encourages all types of visitors to engage with the room’s props for clues, but, while some clues may be in the walls, the room operator will tell you what is an interactive prop, and what is not. No one wants to waste time pulling a drawer off the shelf when no clues are behind it. Believe me, you do not want to pay for the room repairs. P.S. You may also get a story in the beginning to set the mood of the room. This story could give you clues once inside, so listen carefully. You will love how excited your friends will get!
Use your clues wisely if you are only given three. Most rooms allow three clues to teams that are stumped by the rooms’ puzzles, but there are some that allow as many clues as you desire. There may also be inquisitive actors within the room to wander you into the right direction.
Normally, rooms allow 60 minutes to solve the entire room. Make sure you listen to see how long you have to be free from the escape room experience.
Now that you know how to start the process, some people still wonder: Why would you want to willingly lock yourself in a room to escape? Many people ponder this, but once they experience it, they wish that they knew about the places sooner, because, come on . . . how many times can you order pizza and watch a movie on the weekend?
Now that you know the recipe for a fun time, here is some insider advice:
1) Check whether you have a linear room vs. non-linear room. Does your room have to be solved in order or can you solve it out of order? This will help you understand where to put all of your mental energy.
2) Never rule out anything even if it seems “impossible.”
There may be things in the room that are not as they seem . . . and what is possible in this experience may defy conventionality in a regular setting.
3) Know where your clues are and organize.
Do not get your props mixed up! Make a clue location and know when you used a clue.
So, once you are sufficiently addicted and do all of the rooms in the area, now what? Never fear, because these escape room artists change their room puzzles and themes fast and often! Check their websites to see what they brew up next. And if you are still obsessed with escape rooms, there are video games that are themed as such; there even is a TV show called “Race to Escape” that aired on Discovery Channel.
Like the King said to Alice, “Begin at the beginning, the King said gravely, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Even through all of Alice’s twists and turns, she knew that she would find her way. It is like the famous Cheshire cat dialogue with Alice in the woods:
Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
Persevere and try to escape!
P.S. I have hidden in italics a subliminal message for you to solve. Can you figure out the sentence?
Alexandra Felton loves escape rooms that immerse her into new worlds with intricate puzzles and fun. She has played six different rooms and looks forward to finding more.
Here are the benefits of visiting an escape room:
Gives life variety
Do something different besides going out to a restaurant. How many restaurants can one person frequent more than once? Apparently, a lot. Let’s change the narrative!
Provides team building
Do you have a job? Bring your workplace acquaintances to a fun place where they can incorporate training principles to the “fun work environment” always encouraged with a team building experience. Besides, it will be just plain fun. Your co-workers will always talk about this day and remember your creative approach.
Gets you active
Get up and move around while also using your brain. Escape rooms spark creativity and out-of-the-box thinking wherever you go.
Behind the Scenes of Local Rooms
In order to give an accurate description of what an escape room could be, a group of friends accompanied me to three local escape rooms in the La Verne area. Our objective was to see what these local rooms were, why they were there, and how they could be your next best place to be entertained. And, in case you think I am giving all their secrets away, I have checked with the owners regarding how much you should know so not to spoil your in-person experience. There are many surprises in store for you!
Chronos Escape Room in Pomona, 676 Fairplex Drive. Phone: (909) 800-8812.
Owners Eric and Michelle Zhang have a scary themed experience called “Awaken” waiting for you. When we arrived at the location, we saw a large seemingly-abandoned strip mall with blacked out glass walls. A printed banner waved on top of the doors with Chronos’ name and logo. We walked in and saw a waiting room with walls filled with encouraging, “We survived with six minutes and 42 seconds left” type expressions.
The Zhangs opened this business April 2017 and have one finished room with eight employees. To prepare us for the experience, we received a briefing of the room’s rules before Eric set the mood with a backstory of our fate. We were told a story that resulted in us needing to figure out how to escape from a murderer’s twisted game in the location of a school. Zhang told this story to us while we were wearing blacked-out glasses to “blindfold” us and to set the mood for the creepy experience. Then, he told us that we had 60 minutes and unlimited clues with a walkie-talkie to finish the experience. Without clues, the pass rate for this room is 10 percent. We were guided by hand into the experience with our blinding glasses on. Once he said, “Begin,” we took off the glasses and began to survey the disarray and eeriness of the classroom in which we were trapped.
My first reaction was that it was linear. This meant that you could not move on until you solved each puzzle in order. There were no two puzzles that could be solved at the same time, so some of us were left to watch others try to put something together while others waited. Another observation: You needed to be able to crawl to go through areas that were vital to the end results. The technology of the room mainly consisted of numerical pin pads and some hydraulic and magnetic mechanisms. Incorporated were black lights and multiple props.
I was surprised to see math puzzles in the room. I have seen poems that I have needed to decipher as well as jumbled word experiences, but never have I had to solve math teasers. It was a change from other rooms, for sure. The eight people I brought to do this room with me, finished the experience with six minutes and 42 seconds left and seven clues used.
Eric explained the experience he and his wife have made. Eric and Michelle were first introduced to escape rooms in China. They were inspired to make a room of their own when they moved to America to incorporate what they like about Asian escape room culture. “The rooms in China are more tech-savvy than American rooms, and they use math. In America, there are too many reading puzzles. Since math is a universal language that everyone can understand, we feel that we wanted to make that a large part of our room.” They own 8,000 square feet of the location they are in and are looking to take over the whole strip, which will put them at 20,000 square feet to be used for more future rooms. “We have the biggest room in all of LA County,” says Eric. If you like spacious room experiences that get you running around, then this is the place for you.
Eric’s wife Michelle was the main business inspiration. She is a special effects make-up artist in the greater Los Angeles area. “I’ve always been concerned about the details. I wanted to display my abilities and create an experience that was both realistic and fun,” says Michelle. Both Eric and Michelle feel that their room stands above the rest by their story and their usage of technology and decorations. The future? They let me know that they have five new ideas, and they just finished their second room “Inception.” Hint: This room is disorienting and might make you feel upside down. “We are new, so we want to be impressive and get our name out there.” If you are interested in trying new concepts and ideas from abroad, then try Chronos.
Trapped! in Upland, 600 N. Mountain Ave., b204.
Phone: (909) 360-9806. Email: email@example.com
Owner Richard Wilson and his brother-in-law Roland Ebrite have four differently themed experiences ready to go for anyone daring enough to try them. Each one has different difficulty levels. Trapped! opened in August 2015 and was the first escape room to be made in the Inland Empire. They have 10 employees and a design team to make their amazing experiences come to life.
Their location is like a game in itself—hard to find—because it is in a modest business building module on the second floor. Once you find your way up there, you get to see the true professionalism of the place. Upbeat Celtic music plays inside the waiting room. Movie-like framed posters advertise their other experiences. The rest of the room has sign props held up with Velcro on the wall that say funny little phrases like, “Winner, winner chicken dinner” to hold in front of you for a picture after you finish the room.
Once my six friends arrived, we were instructed via video on the room rules. There is an animated team member on a virtual screen who highlighted what we were and were not allowed to do. I had never seen that before, so it was very high-tech to me.
Even though I want to try all of the rooms, I chose Alice and Wonderland. Boy, was I glad that I did. The room, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” is a family-friendly themed experience. It really did feel like I was there. Once we were told the story via another high-tech video, this room translated from a game into a real experience. Without spoiling the room’s contents, I can honestly say that the artistry put into the room is impeccable. The attention to detail toward lighting, the friendly, quirky sound effects and the non-linear puzzle tasks are unique. I was really in this experience. You forget time, you forget your burdens; all that matters is solving the puzzle. With great effort, we were able to finish the room with about seven minutes left.
Richard Wilson, the owner of Trapped! says that he learned about escape rooms in 2014 while researching European escape rooms. He first tried one in Las Vegas before departing for the continent. “I have always been interested in puzzles and games,” says Richard about his inspiration to make his own rooms. “I always had an entrepreneurial spirit.”
His rooms stand out. “Our rooms are now a lot more immersive since we started. The sets are more impressive looking. Our puzzle design has a better flow. We have learned through experience. I don’t want our customers to feel like they’re playing a game; they should feel like they are transported.” If you are looking for a different experience than Alice and Wonderland, try escaping a criminal mastermind’s trap in “The Lair of the PuzzleMaster.” If you want a room that has you sneaking into a high-security underground lab to save your nephew, try solving “Sector 13.” Finally, if you want to try a 15-minute experience where you are trapped in a coffin and try to get out, then try “Deadringers,” their newest experience.
The 13th Room in downtown Pomona, 109 E Third St.,
Phone: (909) 907-9252. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Owner Eddy Millis and Manager Carla Manjarrez have three differently themed experiences that range from a wizard experience to a haunted hotel room. Even Sherlock Holmes himself is represented at the company. The business opened with The 13th Room haunted hotel experience in September 2015. Each room has either one or two operators who make the experience enjoyable.
A group of my Sigma Kappa sorority sisters and I chose to do the Alchemy and Wizardry room together, and it did not disappoint. We parked in downtown Pomona and soon realized that the experience is within a large brick building called the Mayfair Hotel, which is now being used as an apartment complex after historically accurate renovation.
Finding the entrance was the start of the game. A woman, dressed for the part as a wizard’s apprentice, greeted us. When we entered the room, we were immediately put into the experience. There was no waiting room. We were given the rules and a wonderfully crafted back story on the task at hand. It was also apparent that the props were taken into much consideration when designing the Wizard’s study room. The steam-punk look of the walls and exciting props were tantalizing and made me want to try all of the buttons and knobs.
When the wizard’s apprentice briefed us on the rules after the narration, she told us that we only have three clues to use throughout the 60 minutes inside the experience. I was excited when she said that, because we would have to work harder on preserving our guesses. Even with the clue limitation, my sisters and I were able to escape with 10 minutes left. It felt like an amazing accomplishment knowing we were under a little more pressure and still did well!
After the experience, I met with Eddy and Carla. Eddy explains how he has produced live events for a few decades, from live MMA fights to mud runs, so he and Carla have always had an interest in the entertainment business. “We love the ‘Halloween’ or the spooky genre, and we both love games, so we decided to make rooms ourselves, and after playing many escape rooms, conducting tons of research and finding an amazing location at the Mayfair Hotel, we decided to go for it and develop Pomona’s very own first escape room.”
Carla said that the history of the Mayfair Hotel made a great, eerie feel for some of their experiences. I agree.