‘Escape Rooms’ games build sense of accomplishments, camaraderie

Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

Props and clues like this old-fashioned typewriter are part of several escape rooms in the recently opened Escape Peoria business at 100 N. Main St. in East Peoria. Owned by SMARTpath Education Services, the escape rooms are open to the public, as well as for team building with educators and corporations. (Photo courtesy of SMARTpath Education Services)

A new game popping up around the country in which players are willingly locked in a room with only their wits and brainpower to escape is now playing in Peoria.

Two escape room businesses opened locally in June: Gone in 60 Escape Games located at 1028 SW Adams in Peoria’s Warehouse District and Escape Peoria at 100 N. Main St. in East Peoria.

“It’s a fun night out and an experience you won’t forget,” said Pekinite Gina Abernathy, who tried out Gone in 60

recently with a group of family members.

Abernathy and her kin spent nearly an hour finding clues and solving puzzles to stop a mad scientist from spreading a catastrophic virus in a room called the “Contagion.”

“We escaped with 10 minutes to spare. It was great,” Abernathy said, laughing.

That sense of relief and accomplishment is part of what makes the experience so

thrilling, said Rebecca Henderson, owner of SMARTpath Education Services, which operates Escape Peoria in East Peoria, as well as escape rooms in Bloomington and Springfield.

“I think most people walk away with a sense of accomplishment even if they don’t escape within the time frame, because they’ve still completed challenges along the way, and that’s invigorating for people. They’ve also had a good time with their friends or family or co-workers and learned something about each other,” she said.

Henderson, a previous IT administrator for McLean County Unit 5, started SMARTpath Education Services in 2013 as a way to help educators integrate technology into the classroom.

About a year after opening, she discovered the escape room concept and thought it could be amazing in education. Believing it would take awhile to catch on with educators, she first geared it toward corporate team building, which she said was very successful.

Pekinite Gina Abernathy (front row, left) and her family participated in the new Gone in 60 Escape Games recently in Peoria, calling it “an experience you won’t forget.” Players are locked in a room and must work together to solve puzzles to escape within 60 minutes. (Photo courtesy of Gone in 60 Escape Games)

“Now we’re at the point where we’re training educators on how to integrate the escape room concepts into the classroom,” Henderson said. SMARTpath’s escape rooms are also open to the public.

Escape Peoria has several room themes to choose from, including “Freefall” in which participants are caught in an old freight elevator by a disgruntled technician. Depending on the room, teams can range in size from two to eight. The company also offers a mobile escape room experience that brings the challenge to corporations, schools and youth groups. The cost is $28 per adult and $20 for students.

“No prior experience or knowledge is necessary, so everyone is on the same level playing field,” Henderson said. “For a lot of the puzzles you’re really thinking outside the box, looking at things differently, making connections between items and those types of things.”

The Gone in 60 escape room business was started by Sara Fickes and Matthew Ruder as an offshoot of his haunted house business, Haunt Scheduler. The two first met as volunteers at the former Dungeon of Darkness haunted house in Pekin.

“An escape room is closely related to the haunted attraction industry. They’re both very thematic and involve the puzzle aspect, of course,” Fickes said. “We started seeing a lot more of them popping up at the (haunted house) conventions, so we started investigating it.”

It took the couple about a year to get the business up and running, but it fell into place when they were able to buy two established escape rooms in March from another haunted house enthusiast. They reworked the rooms and decided the business would fit in well with the Warehouse District’s attempt to revitalize Peoria.

“We thought it would make good sense to be in an area that was up-and-coming for an up-and-coming type of business,” Fickes said.

“We have two rooms. One is called the “Coven,” which has a spooky, supernatural feel, and the other is “Contagion,” she said. The couple is also working on a third room that will be called “The Morgue.”

“Being put in our escape rooms is really an immersive feeling much like you get when you enter a haunted house,” Fickes said. “You’re given a task and meant to do it in a certain amount of time, so there’s anxiety we build into the game. On top of that, you have to work with the group of people you are put with, whether that’s your group of friends or family or co-workers. It could also include strangers, as well.”

Gone in 60 has attracted a mix of clientele from corporate teams to friends to couples on a date night,

When booking a room, participants have a private or public option with the latter allowing strangers to join the room if slots are available. The cost is $28 per person.

“I think people like it because it’s a group interaction,” Fickes said. “So many times nowadays we go out to eat or go to the movies, and we sit and look at our phones. We’re not really interacting that much. I think this gets people communicating, and they remember how much fun it can be to interact with the people they like or love.”

Gina Abernathy said her family decided to try the escape room during a family reunion.

“The atmosphere is really nice and the rooms are so intricately detailed. We all had a great time and laughed a lot,” she said. “You do see sides of people’s personalities that you didn’t realize while you’re working together. Some people are willing to keep going and others get frustrated more easily.”

For more information about Escape Peoria visit the website at www.escapeteambuilding.us/escape-peoria.html or call (309) 740-4278. For more information about Gone in 60, visit the website www.gonein60.com or call (309) 419-2461. Both businesses also have Facebook pages.

— ‘Escape Rooms’ build sense of accomplishments, camaraderie–