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Baylor student Kevin Nguyen jots down a note on a whiteboard while his teammates search all over a desk as a lamp provides stark light in the CodeBreaker room at Waco Escape Rooms.

Photo by Ken Sury

Whatever happened to family game nights? The days of multiple generations sitting around a table after dinner playing checkers, Clue, Scrabble or charades are being replaced with retreats to separate rooms to watch television or play video games.

Escape rooms, one of the latest crazes to sweep across America, combine the best of both worlds. Families, friends, co-workers and even complete strangers come together to solve puzzles and ultimately “escape” a locked room in what can seem like a real-live video game scenario.

Escape rooms, which started in Japan, began popping up across America in the last five years. The basic concept is that a team must work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles to decipher a series of locks, including the one on the exit door.

While being locked inside a room for 60 minutes may sound a bit scary, the game is completely safe (there are emergency exits and help just outside the door) and teams emerge full of excitement and laughter.

This unique form of entertainment has recently been brought to the Waco area by two separate companies: Waco Escape Rooms and Great Escape of Central Texas.

Waco Escape Rooms

Cory Dickman is a Baylor graduate originally from Portland, Oregon. After attending Baylor for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Waco became “home” to Dickman. He moved back to Portland for a while to be with his family, but always felt the pull to return to Waco.

“Waco was a city I just really wanted to be a part of,” he said. “The longer I stayed, the more I felt I needed to do more than just be a resident. I wanted to be part of the growth of the city.”

While in Portland, Dickman’s best friend, Jared Dauenhauer, moved to Jackson, Tennessee, for a job. Dauenhauer was asked to help with a fundraiser on campus by creating an escape room in one of the dorms. He called Dickman for advice, but neither one had heard of an escape room before.

After some research and collaboration, Dauenhauer’s escape room was a huge success in Jackson, which got Dickman to thinking.

“Jackson is kind of like Waco in that it’s situated in the middle of two larger towns,” Dickman said. “Escape rooms usually existed in bigger towns, but if it worked in Jackson, we thought it could work in Waco, too. We were both always really big gamers, so escape rooms fit our mindset and how we like to think of things. I knew I wanted to move back and start one here.”

Along with partners Jared and AlLee Dauenhauer and Lee and Beth Wilson, that’s exactly what Dickman did.

Waco Escape Rooms currently has four different rooms people can play, each with a different theme and puzzles. Dickman believes part of the intrigue and mystery of the game is not knowing what it will look like when you walk through the door, so rooms are overhauled periodically to create an entirely new experience. Many customers return on a regular basis to play new rooms.

The Child’s Play room is one of the most booked, but Dickman’s theory on that is that not many people in Waco had ever even heard of an escape room, let alone played one, and judged the name of the room to mean it was easy. While Child’s Play is less difficult than some of the others, the name references the theme of the room: a nursery.

The Waco room is recommended for first-time players. Several types of puzzles are incorporated to give players an idea of what escape rooms are all about, and many of the puzzles are built so children can contribute to the fun.

Code Breaker, a throwback to the World War II days of spies and codebreakers, is a popular room and one of Dickman’s favorites.

The newest room is called Dinner for Two. This room is unique because it is rare to have a two-person escape room. Set in the private dining room of a romantic café, this room is also geared toward first-timers.

Part of Dickman’s dream is for Waco Escape Rooms to become a premier team-building facility. Amy Nichols, co-owner of Dogtopia, recently visited with her team and had a great experience.

“The staff loved it and talked about it for days,” Nichols said. “Working together to solve the puzzles was enlightening. We really saw who took charge, who was the problem-solver, and who brought it all together. Honestly, it was so much fun you didn’t even realize it was team building!”

Another part of Dickman’s dream is to bring awareness to the potential Waco has. Waco Escape Rooms is currently located on Lake Air, but Dickman is excited to announce an upcoming move to a new location downtown on Washington Avenue, which will help achieve both dreams.

“Moving downtown is a really big deal,” Dickman said. “We have an awesome space we can completely customize, and we’ll have twice the amount of square footage, which will allow for a large conference room to host companies. The really exciting thing, though, is just getting to be a part of the downtown growth. I’m a huge believer in making our city a place where Baylor students want to stay after graduation and not feel like they have to go to Austin or Dallas to start a business or make a name for themselves. There are plenty of amazing opportunities right here.”

The new location is under construction and is expected to open by early summer.

Great Escape of Central Texas

Charles Duncan and Michelle Smith, co-owners of Great Escape of Central Texas, had a different introduction into the world of escape rooms. The two had actually played an escape room in Austin and loved the whole experience.

Afterward, Duncan told Smith he thought they could open one themselves. Smith told Duncan he was crazy, but, after hearing his ideas and thinking it over, decided to go for it.

“We chose Waco because that’s where Charles is from,” Smith said, “and also because we don’t think big cities should get to have all the fun. You don’t see escape rooms in cities like Waco very often, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful here.”

The partners were both managers at Office Max when Great Escape opened last August, so, initially, their “showtimes,” as they like to call them, were only on nights and weekends. Smith started working full time at the escape room in September, and Duncan was able to quit his job at Office Max shortly after that to join her.

Great Escape has two locations, one in Robinson and another in Killeen. Robinson currently has two rooms and Killeen has three. Like Waco Escape Rooms, Great Escape changes its rooms periodically to create new experiences.

Duncan is the puzzle master of the team, and also the “dreamer,” he said.

“I always wanted to be a screenwriter,” he said, “and I still haven’t given up on that, but Great Escape has become my creative outlet. Much like a screenplay, I can dream up scenarios and sets and then bring them to life in the rooms we create.”

Duncan and Smith love to play escape rooms themselves and have been to rooms in several different states.

“We always think about what kind of room we would want to play,” Smith said. “We pride ourselves on letting our customers feel like they’ve escaped reality and went inside a movie. Charles’ creative designs really immerse the customer in the experience, which makes it a lot of fun.”

Most rooms have at least 15 different locks and even more puzzles. Their puzzles challenge the player’s logic and problem-solving skills rather than general knowledge, so people of all ages and levels can play. A minimum age of 10 is recommended, however, to be able to really engage and fully participate, they said.

The Killeen location currently offers Blackout, Radioactive and Indiana Jones rooms. Blackout has a CIA theme and teams start the game with a single flashlight as their only light source in the pitch-black room.

Radioactive has teams infiltrate the secret lab of an evil scientist to steal his radioactive formula before it’s sold to the highest bidder. This room is perfect for two to four players and is recommended as a “starter room” for first-time escapists.

Indiana Jones was an extremely popular room at the Robinson location and just opened at the Killeen location. Players navigate their way through the “Cave of Souls” to a secret chamber where a golden idol is hidden.

The old Indiana Jones room in Robinson is being converted into a new “Lost”-themed room, based on the hit television show. Being a fan of the show is not required to escape the room, but Duncan said true fans will really appreciate the design and nuances of the room.

The Clue room is based on the classic board game of the same name. A fan favorite, this room can hold a team of up to 12 who work together to find out “whodunit.”

In May, a third room will open in Robinson called Cell Block 9. This room is unique in that there are two components, a jail cell and a sheriff’s office, separated by a wall. Players will be divided into groups where they can hear, but not see, each other. Communication is key to solving this escape because the clues to getting out of the jail cell are hidden in the sheriff’s office and vice versa, they said.

With an average escape rate of around 25 percent, many people return to try the same room again, they said.

Finishing the Challenge

No matter the result, Great Escape and Waco Escape Room make it enjoyable when players exit the room and have group photos taken holding up signs that say things like “His Fault” and “I Is Not Smart” or “Nailed It” and “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner,” depending on the outcome.

Waco Escape Rooms and Great Escape of Central Texas each offer their own unique spins on the escape room phenomenon. The owners want to give Waco something more than the typical “dinner and a movie” night out, and they have delivered.

Find out if you have what it takes to “escape the escape room.”

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Waco Escape Rooms

Address: 716 Lake Air Drive. Suite 100 (location to change this summer)

Phone: 294-7550

Great Escape of Central Texas

Address: 635 N. Robinson Drive in Robinson (see website for Killeen location information)

Phone: 366-6062