Escape rooms bring puzzles to life in N.J.

You’re trapped in a room with seven of your closest friends. With only an hour to spare, you frantically search the room for any clues to escape, solving riddles and asking for hints along the way.

No, this isn’t a video game or a movie. Actually, it’s real life.

Escape rooms, which are live, interactive puzzle games that require groups of about eight people and up to work together to find a key to set them free within a set amount of time of usually an hour, are the newest international craze to sweep those looking for something different to do on the weekend.

“Escape rooms are the perfect balance of real life and virtual reality,” said Christopher Lagrada, co-owner of The Escape Plan, a puzzle room facility that opened in April in Highland Park. “You hear a lot of people talk about video games, but with those, you miss the physical components, scripting and actors to make it into a whole scene.”

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It’s no surprise, though, that escape rooms, which started gaining in popularity in America in 2013, bear some resemblance to video games — they began as such and then ambitious gamers began to build their own rooms within brick and mortar. That’s how Lagrada and his team started, too — the eight longtime friends enjoyed escape room games and other cognitive games and decided to bring their own to life with “Abigail’s Playroom,” where visitors must search the “playroom” to discover who murdered little Abigail Pierson and escape the room.

Concepts vary vastly depending on the particular escape room. At The Escape Plan’s future location, opening in December in Edison, three concepts will be introduced — a prequel to Abigail’s Playroom, an action-packed heist and an adventurous overseas concept.

At the Amazing Escape Room’s Princeton location, which is accompanied by three other N.J. locations, six concepts are available — the Dorm Room, the Carnival Room, the Bank Robbery Room, the Office, the Time Travel Room and the Cabin.

None of the concepts at the Amazing Escape Room or the Escape Plan are “scary,” but pressure does fill the scene as participants race against the clock to complete their challenge.

Columnist Jenna Intersimone, third from left, escaped the room within 60 minutes with her team.  ~Courtesy of The Escape Plan

Columnist Jenna Intersimone, third from left, escaped the room within 60 minutes with her team. ~Courtesy of The Escape Plan

Similar to the Escape Plan, the Amazing Escape Room’s business has skyrocketed, and the chain, which originated in Freehold, now has eight nationwide locations after only being in business since July 2015.

“When we first started, we thought our main customer base would be for corporations looking for team building,” said Heidi Neufeld, regional director. “However, we now see that there is no specific type, which has made it extremely popular. I’ve had 8-year-olds as well as people with Ph.D.s escape the rooms.”

Neufeld said that the Amazing Escape Room Princeton, which opened in November 2015, sells out just about every weekend with around 600 bookings per week that cost $30 per person. The Escape Plan also frequently sells out on weekends and accommodates about 100 people each week, ranging from $26.50 to $29.50 per person.

“Maybe there aren’t enough interactive things that companies or families can do together,” said Neufeld. “This is one that is also a time and a place where they can turn their phone off for an hour.”

Abigail's Playroom at the Escape Plan.  Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

Abigail’s Playroom at the Escape Plan. Jenna Intersimone/Staff Photo

In order to prepare for their escape room challenge, Neufeld said that participants should come with an open mind and the want to work together as well as relax and enjoy themselves. The Amazing Escape Room’s challenges also start out with a “lock lesson,” or a little practice challenge where participants must solve a riddle to open a lock, to get their minds prepared to solve the room challenges that have about a 10 to 20 percent completion rate.

The Escape Plan’s room has about a 48 percent completion rate that requires the use of hints about half of the time, which the Escape Plan and the Amazing Escape Room offer if participants get stuck.

“People think that this is just a fun time, but it’s also a challenge, so be prepared to think and be motivated,” said Lagrada. “To prep, do what you would do to get ready for a competition or a test.”

Lagrada said the Escape Plan receives visitors young and old, but the best groups are those that have close ties with their companions and are always looking for a challenge or something new to do. Visitors need no special knowledge or skills to solve the puzzles — just a creative and curious mind.

“Everyone loves to problem solve and they love a challenge,” said Lagrada. “You can go to an amusement park, but there’s nothing you have to think about. With an escape room, you do more than just enjoy the experience.”

The Escape Plan recently opened in Highland Park.  ~Courtesy of the Escape Plan

The Escape Plan recently opened in Highland Park. ~Courtesy of the Escape Plan

The Escape Plan

Where: 311 Raritan Ave., Highland Park

Contact: 848-209-6545 or theescapeplannj.com

Cost: $26.50 to $29.50 per person

Bookings: theescapeplannj.com/abigails-playroom/

The Amazing Escape Room

Where: 3490 US-1 #15A, Princeton

Contact: 609-919-0091, amazingescaperoom.com/princeton-nj/

Cost: $30 per person 

Bookings: amazingescaperoom.com/princeton-nj/the-office/

 

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