By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Deadbolt Escape Rooms
If you watched the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and wanted to be Indiana Jones, dashing in his fedora, dangerous with his bullwhip, and defying the odds to emerge from any scrape with the prize in hand, you can. All you need to do is head to your nearest escape room, no fedora required.
Escape rooms are live-action team-based games where players are “locked” in a prop-filled room and attempt to “escape” within 60 minutes by solving puzzles, cracking clues, and finishing riddles. They offer a taste of the Indiana Jones experience (minus the boulders, swarms of poison darts, gun-toting bad guys or high-altitude drinking contests) and they’re popping up everywhere.
Across the South, escape rooms large and small draw in hundreds of visitors a day to test their wits and wiles against the clock and leaderboard, a list of completion times used to measure a participant’s success and time. Tupelo’s Deadbolt Escape Rooms, TripAdvisor.com’s number two escape room in the state; Liberation Escape Rooms in Southaven, Miss.; and Tennessee’s own Memphis Escape Rooms with locations downtown and in East Memphis have legions of loyal fans.
Though all escape rooms operate on the same idea—solve the clues and finish the puzzles to beat the clock and emerge victorious—they’re all a little different. You can play the part of a cop closing in on a serial killer before the next murder, or be that cop trying to escape from the serial killer who is holding you hostage. Maybe you’d rather be a pirate searching the Captain’s cabin for a treasure map before he comes off duty in an hour. Or maybe you’d like to try your hand at fixing the mad scientist’s time machine so you can bring him back from wherever he went.
Themes and difficulty vary, making escape rooms an appealing game to just about any age or experience level. Most escape rooms (including the ones mentioned above) host private family or friend gatherings, team building and corporate events, birthday parties, and more.
Susan Smiley, who co-owns Southaven’s Liberation Escape Rooms with her husband, sister and brother-in-law, recently introduced her oldest daughter to escape room puzzles.
It’s a good thing since Smiley and her family find escape rooms when they’re on vacation. In 2016, Smiley and her family headed to Memphis to try their first escape room for her brother’s birthday. “We loved it. We talked about it for days,” she says. “And it wasn’t long after we tried our first escape room that my brother threw out the idea of opening our own.”
Smiley’s brother and wife would handle puzzles, clues, and the flow of the room while Smiley and her husband would build props and source the puzzle components and decorations. Within a year, Liberation Escape Rooms was open. Escape rooms are games, so the puzzles at Liberation, at Deadbolt, and at Memphis Escape Rooms are designed to be won. “We don’t want a room no one can win,” says Smiley. “What we want are rooms that are challenging but fun. Fun to win. Fun to attempt. Fun to be in.”
Liberation Escape Rooms has five rooms, each with a different theme and difficulty level. The two intro rooms—a science fair-themed room and another where players try to help Santa clear up a situation with a rogue elf—are easier, geared toward younger or inexperienced players like Smiley’s daughter. Others, like the knight-themed room, are more difficult and cater to experienced players.
At Deadbolt Escape Rooms and at the two locations Memphis Escape Rooms runs, the setup is similar but themes and difficulty vary. Deadbolt’s four rooms stay busy, and their Magnolia Mystery Room, where you work to “find the hiding place of a Mississippi millionaire’s treasure,” brings things close to home with a bit of local flavor. Deadbolt also has The Deadbolt Mystery Society, a subscription box service that sends boxes full of puzzles, clues, and interviews to participants for them to solve a new mystery every month. It’s like an escape room, but at home.
Memphis Escape Rooms, which has 10 rooms between the two locations, has a Memphis-themed puzzle where players search a trove of Memphis memorabilia to find the lost Key to the City and win the game.