WASHINGTON — In the Oval Office, the red phone is ringing. We freeze, wondering which member of our mismatched crew should pick it up. Charisse shrugs, grabs the receiver, and nods once. “He says we might want to check the vent again,” she reports.
This is the Escape Lounge on H Street, one of several “escape room” experiences in the nation’s capital. While the sites differ in theme and setting, the formats are similar. A group of people is locked in a room for about an hour, charged with solving a mystery. Success requires creative thinking, collaboration, and possibly a willingness to do something silly for the cause — such as rocking out to “Thriller” with a group of people you’ve known for all of 20 minutes. While the experiences are used widely for corporate team building and bachelor/bachelorette parties, about half of escape room participants are tourists, according to owners. And while cities across the world have escape room experiences, Washington seems to have a disproportionately large number — seven in D.C. proper, with more in northern Virginia.
Escape rooms are a natural extension of movies, interactive entertainment (such as haunted houses), live-action role playing, video games, and shows like “Survivor,” says Scott Nicholson, professor of Game Design and Development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario. “Escape rooms let us engage in story and adventure in a live space. People want to get away from screen-based experiences.”
“Escape the Oval Office is not a history exam like people think it will be,” says general manager Ayanna Smith. “It’s a fun mix of history and pop culture and using a lot of clues to escape.” The Escape Lounge also offers Escape the Classroom, designed for children.
At the Escape Lounge, my husband and I were teamed with seven other players, including first-timers, veterans, locals, and visitors. The Escape the Oval Office scenario is based on the 1969 Apollo moon mission. After surrendering our cellphones, we listened as Smith gave us our assignment. We needed to find two things: evidence of life on the moon and the key to get out.
In addition to the iconic desk and presidential seal-embossed carpet in the Oval Office, we saw a briefcase, a jacket on a hook, a newspaper and water bottle on the desk, maps of D.C. on the wall, a model of the space shuttle, an old Victrola, a chess game set on a coffee table, and a large digital clock counting down the minutes. Bit by bit we discovered puzzle pieces, secret compartments, hidden keys, clues revealed only under a black light, and codes that emerged from a cryptex. (Some “clues” — such as the chess game — turned out to be red herrings.)
There are multiple ways to get the same information, Smith said, because people problem-solve in different ways. Game masters watch the progress on a webcam and call to offer hints as needed — which in our case was pretty often. Sixty minutes later Smith came to our rescue and revealed what we had missed.
Shantae Goodloe, who lives in D.C., was trying an escape room for the first time. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it was great,” she said. “It’s challenging for your mind but fun at the same time.”
Kimberly Linton, of Arlington, Va., brought her mother, Karen, who was visiting from Melbourne Beach, Fla. Both generations gave the experience a thumbs-up, though Karen said, “It was harder than I thought it would be.”
From the Oval Office, we headed across town to Escape Room Live, which opened in late 2014 and is credited with being the first such attraction in the district. In the lobby, participants limber up playing video games, including such retro games as Frogger and Pac-Man. Here we teamed up with a family of six from Michigan visiting relatives, and an escape room enthusiast touring the area on his own.
Escape Room Live has three rooms: “Back to the ’80s,” “I Was Framed!” and the “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” room. Owner Ginger Flesher-Sonnier says she works with Paramount, Lionsgate, and Sony Pictures to promote their new releases in themed rooms. A second location, in Alexandria, Va., features rooms based on Sherlock Holmes, the Divergent series, the Wizard’s Apothecary, and Edgar Allan Poe.
On our visit last fall, we chose a room based on the then-current movie “Sicario,” a thriller set against the war on drugs at the border between the United States and Mexico. Our assignment: figure out the location of an underground tunnel being planned to smuggle items into the States, and then find the key to get out of the room. This room featured some of the same props we had seen before, but there was greater emphasis on color and number patterns, math sequences, and lots of locks. Our intergenerational makeup came in handy; when we unearthed a cassette tape that held key information, none of the kids knew how to operate the tape player.
In this room, participants had to call for clues. Flesher-Sonnier says that most of her rooms have an escape rate of about 20 percent without any hints, and about 70 percent if participants choose to receive hints. So we were pretty pumped when in a mere 45 minutes we had discovered the tunnel and unlocked the door.
Other DC escape rooms include: Escape Artist DC (www.escapeartistdc.com), with three rooms, owned by artist, engineer, and Capitol Hill resident Milind Raj; Great Escape Room (www.thegreatescaperoom.com/dc), which invites you into Sherlock Holmes’s study; Escape the Room DC (www.escapetheroomdc.com), with two rooms and other locations across the United States; Insomnia Escape Room (insomniaescaperoomdc.com), with rooms rated according to difficulty; and the newest, Omescape DC(omescapedc.com), a franchise of Omega Room Escape, headquartered in Beijing, which offers clues in both English and Chinese.
For travelers contemplating an escape room adventure in a new city, Nichols suggests checking online reviews, looking to see what rooms are solidly booked on weekends, and calling the operators directly for details about target age groups, themes, and difficulty level. “After all,” he said, “they want you to have a good experience.”Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.