Staying safe indoors: Escape rooms adjust during pandemic

Players solve puzzles at Escape Room Breckenridge. With private, sanitized rooms, the attraction has been a popular entertainment option during the pandemic.
Photo from Nicolette Cusick

FRISCO — Being outside in the fresh air, wearing masks and staying socially distant is a healthy combination for folks wanting to stretch their legs beyond the confines of their own homes. As days get cooler, however, people look for ways to entertain themselves without going into the cold. Private attractions such as escape rooms may be a solution.

The interactive rooms are thoroughly sanitized between sessions, masks are required and bookings must be made in advance online or over the phone. A singular group of family members or friends, not commingled with strangers from a different party, then interact with clues in the room to solve a themed puzzle as a team. 

Usually players have about an hour to search for Sasquatch, find hidden treasure or piece together other mysteries. The immersive adventure is essentially an analogue version of digital point-and-click video games.

Visitors and locals alike have recognized the safety of the activity, with business for some being just as high as previous years. Along with High Country residents, demographics have shown more from the Front Range and neighboring states than before.

“Summer is definitely our busiest season and it’s been busy just like normal,” Larissa Martinez, owner of Mountain Time Escape Rooms in Breckenridge, said. “There’s been no change really in it for us.”

Her three separate locations and rooms are less popular than usual during the weekends, but busy weekday visits have made up for the loss. Martinez is also surprised to see the interest continue past Labor Day, and she has made additional hires to keep up with the demand.

Meanwhile, Frisco Escape Room has limited the amount of sessions due to increased disinfecting protocols. Yet, it too has received a surprising amount of traffic.

“Naturally, we have seen a decline in business since we offer less rooms in a day, but we have still seen more people than I initially expected this summer,” Owner Ian Greene wrote in an email.

“Overall, COVID has proved to be quite a challenge to navigate as an escape room owner, but I know that this virus won’t last forever and I believe that when it is all over, we as an industry will hold a higher standard for safety and cleanliness moving forward,” he wrote.

Despite the silver linings, the businesses weren’t immune to the economic impacts of shutting down from March to June. Staff sizes shrunk and grew back with loans. Green picked up another job in the morning, further limiting his availability to run games. Losing spring break revenue was the hardest part for them. Martinez said her business was briefly slammed when the ski resorts shut down, but it only lasted a few days until she, too, had to close. Owners said they were thankful that landlords and local government had been supportive during the closure.

One of Mountain Time Escape Rooms’ locations involves escaping a mountain cabin. Owner Larissa Martinez said she has had to hire additional employees due to a surge in business.
Photo from Larissa Martinez

Going virtual

Escape Room Breckenridge used the months they were closed to devise up a new experience. Owner Nicolette Cusick pivoted and converted her secret agent room into a digital format. 

Escape rooms throughout the industry had similar strategies to stay afloat. Some went back to the attraction’s roots with point-and-click games, others had it so only one live employee moved around the room as players verbally guided them to search for clues and use objects. Cusick decided to make her own version that focused on solving the puzzle rather than scavenging around every nook and cranny.

“I think most people prefer to solve the puzzles, not so much, ‘Oh we missed opening a drawer,’” Cusick said. “That’s so frustrating when you’re doing a game and you don’t find something that’s vital. You don’t have to find every little thing you need. It’s right there.”

After the introductory video of Cusick exploring the room and explaining the mission to disarm a bomb, players are presented with a screen that catalogs the entire interactive inventory. People talk amongst themselves to figure out what items — like books, maps and chess pieces — are used and how. Cusick will then tell them if their guesses are correct and guide the narrative along. 

It’s a suitable option for people who aren’t comfortable leaving their homes or want to play with friends and family from across the globe. Cusick has done it for Mother’s Day celebrations, classrooms, birthday parties and more. She and other hosts play off the participants’ energy to make it relaxed or serious depending on if people wish to escape in record time. She even has alternative rules to turn it into a drinking game to supplement happy hours held via Zoom.

An inventory screen shows participants all of their available clues to disarm a bomb in Escape Room Breckenridge’s virtual room. Owner Nicolette Cusick created the digital option when the coronavirus shut down her physical location.
Photo from Nicolette Cusick

The cost of the online escape room is naturally cheaper at $50 for the first four connections and then $15 for each additional link. The physical rooms cost $38 per person.

Cusick knows it isn’t as profitable, but she’s glad the virtual room kept her busy during the first few months of the pandemic and that she was able to entertain others.

“The response has been amazing,” Cusick said. “I feel very lucky.”

It went on pause when Cusick reopened in June, but the digital version is now available for booking again. While Cusick said not all puzzles have the right flow, she is hoping to translate another room — Captain Steelhook’s Treasure — to the virtual format.

“I think escape rooms are safer way to do something fun versus being in a movie theater or bowling or things like that, Cusik said. “This is a safer way to enjoy time with loved ones.”

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