Escape rooms have a long and chequered history.
The escape room as we know it – a real-life experience of solving puzzles within a preset time limit – came into existence probably in 2007.
However the basic concept of finding your way out of a complicated and long physical structure has been around much longer.
Greek mythology has repeated references to the labyrinth – the most prominent one being built to trap an evil creature called the Minotaur – in many ways the first escape room in the world.
European royalty used to design their gardens in the form of a maze – the Hampton Court Maze being a prominent example – and this represented a step forward towards the modern escape room.
Why do I say that?
That’s because technically a labyrinth is supposed to have only one entrance, one path – albeit full of twists and turns – and one exit.
While a maze can have multiple choices of entrances, exits and paths, dead ends and branching off of a path.
Related to escape rooms are of course haunted house attractions. You don’t need to solve any puzzles, but you still need to grit your teeth and proceed through them.
And the first formal haunted home attraction in the United States was the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, California, established in the 1960’s.
Did you know? Walt Disney got the idea for the Disneyland Haunted Mansion from the Winchester Mystery House built by Sarah Winchester, widow of business magnate William Winchester.
The Winchester Mystery House has classic escape/thriller elements like staircases to nowhere and doors opening to walls. It’s also named ‘Mystery House’.
But it’s not a planned escape attraction.
It was built without a master plan, in phases over 38 years and across at least one earthquake.
As I mentioned in my blog ‘Are escape rooms really that big a deal?’ the escape room concept as we know it has been present on TV for decades in the form of TV shows like Crystal Maze and movies like Cube.
And of course scavenger hunts for Easter eggs and other things, organized privately, go back decades if not centuries.
Among large-scale events, the University of Chicago has been organizing a scavenger hunt every year from 1987.
Now we come to professionally designed real life escape rooms as we know them.
The first one was designed in 2007 by a guy from Japan called Takao Kato through his company called SCRAP.
From Japan the live escape room concept spread to Singapore and China.
Then came expansion to the West.
In 2011, a Hungarian guy by the name Attila Gyurkovics established a firm called Parapark in Budapest, which went on to build live escape rooms across Europe.
The year after, a friend of Takao Kato of Japan, Kazuya Iwata, opened an escape room in San Francisco.
In 2012, a science teacher from Bern, Switzerland called Gabriel Palacios was trying to make lessons more palatable for his students.
Traditionally the learning process follows a stick (from the dynamic duo carrot and stick) policy.
If you study thoroughly, you will do well in your exam which is a sedentary event. If you don’t do well in your exams, you won’t have a prosperous career or life.
The sedentary nature of exams makes them unappealing to most. Moreover there’s limited scope to test innovative capacities.
This Gabriel guy followed the same process but made the ‘exam’ a dynamic and fun event.
Students would be locked inside a room and in order to leave, they had to solve clues and do tasks, all of which were of course science-related.
Many of the tasks required unorthodox (out of the box) use of various items, implicitly sparking an innovative streak in participants.
‘Duels’, whereby multiple teams participated simultaneously trying to finish first, were created to spark healthy competition.
It became wildly popular and today AdventureRooms has a global presence.
The first escape room company established by an American is PuzzleBreak, established in 2013 by Nate Martin, who used to work at Microsoft.
Why are escape rooms so popular?
From the point of view of participants, they can hone various skills (like team-building, problem-solving, communication, cooperation and so on).
For that reason they’re a hit with corporations yielding lots of opportunities for corporate bookings and partnerships.
They can also serve as a break from an otherwise desk-bound and/or stressful lifestyle.
From the point of view of the business/franchise owners, it’s a simple pathway to prosperity.
What are your main costs if you open an escape room?
- A one-time room acquisition cost (if you buy the room) or running rent costs.
- A one-time designing cost.
- Running payroll costs.
- Running maintenance costs (which may be small or large depending on your room design )
- Occasional replacement costs to replace damaged or dated equipment although those maybe mitigated by asking errant customers to pay for any equipment they damage
As it turns out, with most retail bookings priced in the $20-$30 range and plenty of corporate opportunities, a well-run escape room business may break even within a year.
Remember Nate Martin?
He used $7000 of his own money to start PuzzleBreak.
He recouped his investment within…wait for it…a month of starting it.
In short, the concept of escaping from a location has been around for centuries, starting from Greek mythology.
The related concepts of scavenger hunts and haunted house attractions have been around for decades.
The escape room as we know it may have originated on TV with shows like The Crystal Maze.
In was in 2007 that the first real life escape room was built by Takao Kato in Japan. The concept quickly spread to Singapore and China.
Escape rooms started appearing in the Western world from roughly 2011-12 through the efforts of 3 individuals
- Attila Gyurkovics established an escape room firm called Parapark in Budapest in 2011.
- Takao Kato’s friend Kazuya Iwata opened an escape room in San Francisco in 2012.
- That same year Gabriel Palacios, a Swiss science teacher, laid the foundation for escape room business AdventureRooms by designing science-based challenges for his students to make the learning process less dreary.
And the first American escape room firm is PuzzleBreak established in 2013 by Nate Martin.
Escape rooms are a fun way of building critical skills, testing your knowledge and killing stress.
With people increasingly looking for thrilling experiences and wanting to ‘get away’ from the constant stress of daily life, escape rooms are sure to keep growing in number and innovation for years to come.