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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Puzzles and clues lead Ithaca adventurers to escape room

Stuck in a mysterious room, participants frantically rush to decipher codes in the hope of unlocking boxes and discovering keys. The twist: Participants are lost in the Himalayas, and they have to find all of their missing sled dogs and escape the abominable snowman in 60 minutes.

This is just one of the variations of Escape Ithaca, Ithaca’s only physical and mental adventure room, located above the State Theatre at 109 West State Street. The company, co-owned by Ithaca local Ray Weaver and James Potocki, opened the doors to its interactive adventure game in October and has had over 1,200 participants since.

Escape room games are typically a series of physical activities in which participants are locked in a room with others and have to use elements within the room to solve a series of puzzles and clues before time runs out. It’s a trademark game found to be rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. According to the Escape Room Directory, there is an escape room location in nearly every U.S. state.

Weaver said he was amazed at the fastest time he had seen someone complete the Lost in the Himalayas room — 37 minutes. The groups can vary in size from two to 10 participants, and it costs $20 per person.

He sometimes incorporates activities and events around Ithaca, such as the Wizarding Weekend, into crafting the escape room. Weaver said he and Potocki aim to change the design and challenge of the room every eight to 10 weeks but have ended up changing the room every four to six weeks due to local activities.

The current escape room is a sequel to the second room, which opened around Christmas and revolved around presents and the holiday spirit.

“We’re very aware of the different festivals that are going on, so we’ll try to work our themes towards that,” he said. “We’re locally owned and operated. That’s what we are, and that’s what we do.”

Escape Ithaca is different from other escape games, Weaver said, because the challenges aren’t physical exercises but mental ones.

“We really want people to exercise their brains a little bit more and not just their bodies,” he said.

Weaver said he noticed the rising popularity of escape rooms and decided it was time to bring one to the Ithaca area. He said he knew the college population would help support the business.

Freshman Adrienne Smith completed the many challenges and said she thinks the addition of an escape room on The Commons is an exotic off-campus activity for students.  

“I think it’s a really good opportunity for students to … have a good time with their friends, or even people that they just met,” Smith said. “It gets you to think a little bit differently than you normally would.”

Freshman Eric Harris said the challenging factor of the room helps to bring participants together and create friendships.

“It’s a cool thing to have [an escape room] in a close-knit community … with our small population,” Harris said. “Going in there, combined with all the problem-solving you have to do, you end up developing this bond with the people you go with, and it’s really nice for building friendships.”

Participants have 60 minutes to escape the room. After guests are given a brief overview of the group’s goals and establish what’s important to them, they are then led to their first clue.

Jamie Myers, an employee at Escape Ithaca, said she hopes visitors take away an alternative thought process from their experience in the room.

“I hope they have a lot of fun — that’s really the main part of it,” Myers said. “It’s also about opening up your mind to different stuff as well. It’s immersive, and it also is so interactive that it makes you think a lot more than you might normally do day to day.”

Smith said the escape room brings people together because all participants have the same objective.

“I think working together as a team, no matter if you know the person for 10 years or 20 minutes — you can do anything with people if you’re all working towards a similar goal,” she said.

Based on her experience, Smith said she’d recommend Escape Ithaca to others since it requires participants to think differently.

“It really makes you think differently than how you normally would in everyday life or how you would in your academics,” Smith said.

Employees at Escape Ithaca watch and listen to participants through cameras and microphones as they adventure through the maze, Weaver said. If people are stuck on a section of the puzzle, employees will give participants a hint to guide them in the right direction without giving away too much information.

Myers said she enjoys watching participants as they tackle the escape room challenge by challenge.

“Honestly, there are so many different things I enjoy about [the escape room], it’s hard to pick one,” Myers said. “But I really enjoy just seeing their excitement when they actually get through it.”

Irina Noonan can be reached at inoonan@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @irinanoonan