I was watching the CBS Sunday Morning Show about a month ago when I first heard the term “escape room.” It seemed on par with the rest of the adult-entertainment trends: adult coloring-book parties, adult vintage-game parties or adult pajama parties. But the concept of escape rooms is a little more high function than mere entertainment. Teams of people work together to uncover clues and hidden keys, solve puzzles and escape a room in 60 minutes.
Sounds like a “Saw” sequel? Well, it can be in some parts of the world where the game is played, but not at the newly opened Cape Fear Escape Room. “There’s nothing scary about this, there’s no zombies,” assures co-owner Kim Wilt. “There are some [escape rooms] that have paid actors jump at you, or in 60 minutes a person comes close to you and tries to grab you, but everyone will come out in tact here.”
The escape-room craze started in Japan, then migrated to Europe before arriving in the United States. Kim and Steve Wilt discovered an escape room on their family vacation in Canada.
“[While] in Toronto, we were looking for family stuff to do,” Wilt tells. “I’ve got a 14-year-old and two 11-year-olds, so finding stuff that’s fun for everyone can be hard. These escape rooms kept coming up as ‘what to do.’”
There were 25 escape rooms in Toronto alone, so the Wilts gave it a shot. They loved the interactive brain-teasers and puzzles so much they returned to do another one the very next day.
“Afterward, we started to think Wilmington, with so much to do, still needs attractions that are more suitable for a wide range of age groups,” she continues.
Cape Fear Escape Room (5747A Oleander Dr.) opened to the public on Thursday, Oct. 22. Located in an unassuming white building that used to be a tattoo parlor, the virtually windowless one-story structure employs two room themes: Time Traveler and Cape Fear Manhunt. Each escape-room expedition starts with a brief video of the story behind the mystery to be solved.
The Wilts bought the rights to both games from a Romanian escape-room company, where the game is very popular. “He basically showed us how to set it up, and we made it American,” Wilt says. “There are a lot of things on there that a fire marshal would never let us do! There were also odd things that just don’t exist here, so we took the basis of his theme and made it what we wanted.”
Cape Fear Manhunt revolves around the murder of a college coed and her killer at large. It all starts in a regular dorm room. “You have to figure out where all the clues are in order to escape,” Wilt details. Not all rooms have back stories; it’s just about escaping, but Wilt wanted there to be more to the game. “We really thought that adding another dimension of a story—the ‘why are you doing this’—adds a little bit to it.”
Time Traveler begins with the story of two young lovers in the early 1900s. Much like “Romeo and Juliet,” they were torn apart from each other because of their differing families and class status.
“So the mission is to not only get out of the room in 60 minutes, but also figure out what happened to them and their families,” Wilt explains.
The Time Traveler room is decked out in late Victorian design. A vintage desk and trunk rest on the floor. Dimly lit light fixtures, pictures and mirrors hang on the four blood-red walls. The Wilts scoured thrift stores, Goodwill and ReStores to find authentic items from the era. “It was important for us to put you back into that time frame,” she says.
There are two doors: one that’s locked behind groups as they walk in, and one that leads them out … if the key is found. Each game has a doorbell that can be rang to cash in two free clues (or to be let out of the room if need be). Players don’t have to use the freebies if they don’t want to.
Everything and nothing seems like a clue; distractions are everywhere—whether in lifting and flipping the same rug over and over, or fixating on potential riddles and codes written in the love letter on a desk. Making progress is all about solving puzzles, brain twisters and riddles.
“I think the nerd in all of us loves this,” Wilt says. “It’s interesting, too, because we’ve had a couple groups of friends and family come through to give us feedback. and we’ve had all age groups, sports guys, introverts, 8-year-olds to 60-year-olds, and it’s been neat to see how different people react.”
Wilt expects there to about a 30-percent escape rate, which is by design in hopes people don’t complete it the first time around and come back.
“That’s what happened to us the first time we did it,” she says. “They gave us a couple of extra minutes on the second game, I think, because we were so enthusiastic. The first one is really a learning experience and the next time you do one, you know a little more about what you’re getting yourself into. They’re all so different and that’s why there are people who literally go around the country to different escape rooms.”
The Wilts have received countless inquiries for not only groups of families, friends and private parties, but corporate team-building and holiday parties in coming months. They are already eying escape-room expansion opportunities in Wilmington.
Tickets are $26 per person. Typical number for groups comprise six to 10 people. Guests can purchase up to four additional tickets for $21. The whole venue can be reserved for $300 an hour during the day, if available.