Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 13, 2015

The Escape Experience!

River City Roundabout

Located at 1800 Rossville Ave., The Escape Experience is a new interactive entertainment option in Chattanooga. - (Photo by David Laprad)

The small room had grown even smaller over the course of the last 45 minutes, with the walls seeming to close in as time ran

out. But we were close. Just one puzzle stood between us

and freedom.

Or so the four of us thought.

The mastermind that had placed us there watched Nathan Garmany, Mike Strobl, Josh Dempsey, and me through the lens of a security camera mounted on the ceiling – a single, heartless retina that showed no warmth or mercy. Below it, on the wall, a timer displayed rapidly diminishing numbers – minutes, seconds, and tenths of seconds were racing to zero, when all hope would be gone.

But we knew we were making him sweat. He’d placed us in there with a seemingly impossible task: find a certain object and escape the room in one hour. He hadn’t even told us what we were looking for! But here we were, one puzzle away from emerging victorious.

Nathan punched a four-digit code into a keypad. Something to the left of us clicked, and then the wall drew back to reveal ...

I can’t say. But it wasn’t freedom. It was our doom. We knew in that moment we’d been defeated. I looked at the security camera, and could almost see the glimmer of an evil smile in its lens. The cunning architect of our fate had won.

A door opened behind us. The lights came on. And in he walked to deliver our just reward ...

“Hey guys,” he said. “You did pretty well. You were close to getting out.”

The evil mastermind’s name was Mike Rowland, and he’s actually a nice guy. Smart, too, judging by the puzzles he and his cousin designed and built as part of The Inheritance challenge at The Escape Experience, an exciting new interactive entertainment option in Chattanooga.

Maybe you’ve played a room escape game on your computer. They typically place you inside a small space, where you’re challenged to solve puzzles ranging from simple item-hunts to Mensa-caliber conundrums. Even though you’re in a box, you have to think outside of it to escape.

The Escape Experience is the live version of those computer games. In our scenario, we began by turning the room - or least the couch and a few chairs - upside down. In addition, we were each given a letter related to an item we’d inherited, sending us rummaging. We leafed through books, looked under knick knacks, and turned furniture inside out - and quickly collected a handful of items.

But to escape, we not only needed to concentrate on our individual tasks, we had to work together. That required a leader. Nathan, a pastor, became our de facto man in charge.

As precious seconds ticked away, we hit roadblocks. We were given three clues, each of which got us over a hump but revealed a new series of enigmas. The connections between the clues weren’t always immediately apparent, but with thought and teamwork, we were able to solve a good chunk of the scenario.

After it was over, we were more exhilarated than disappointed, and we immediately began analyzing our performance to see where we could’ve done better. I knew if I’d followed through on the clue related to my inheritance item, I would’ve saved us at least a few minutes of stumbling around in the dark.

You might be wondering why I’m not providing specifics about The Inheritance, or why there are no pictures of the room. Simple: The Escape Experience is like Fight Club - you don’t talk about it. To do so would ruin the pulse-pounding nature of walking into the room, taking in your surroundings, and hearing the exit close behind you.

What I can tell you is this:

One, the Escape Experience is not physically strenuous. We didn’t even need to lift the couch! (Even saying that is saying too much. I’d better stop before I start having visions of Tyler Durden telling me how soap is made.) All you need to bring is your thinking cap. You might also want to get a little sleep and eat some protein beforehand because your brain is going to get a workout. With ten minutes left and a sizable challenge looming before us, Strobl said he was going to put the couch back together and take a siesta. Mentally, he was as done as a Christmas turkey.

Two, you’re not really trapped. If you or any member of your party needs out for any reason, there’s a panic button that unlocks the way out.

Three, you need at least four people with a solid leader to get out on time. For The Inheritance (the hardest scenario at The Escape Experience), we could have used a few more participants. Rowland told us a group of ten that works together at a local company got out with five minutes and 32 seconds left on the clock. Their boss had been in charge.

Four, the overall design of The Inheritance is ingenious. Rowland  has a background in construction, and he and his cousin both have MBAs, but the degree of inventiveness they display goes beyond what I was expecting. Months of design work, preparation, and testing went into that experience, and it paid off.

Five – and I’m throwing all journalistic decorum out the window here – you gotta do this! It’s fun! After it was over, the four of us couldn’t stop talking about what we’d experienced. Garmany even mentioned wanting to do it again with the staff from his church.

Since the element of the unknown is a big part of The Escape Experience, playing through the same scenario again wouldn’t be as fun, especially since Rowland showed us what we’d missed. (There’s some ridiculously cool high-tech trickery near the end that would have been fun discovering on our own.) Fortunately, in addition to the Inheritance, The Escape Experience also offers a prison escape scenario called C-Block, and Rowland and company are working on a horror-themed scenario.

Located at 1800 Rossville Ave. downtown – with free parking in the back! – The Escape Experience has the capacity for up to five scenarios. I hope Rowland and his crew do well enough to warrant building the place out.

As Rowland took a picture of us holding an Escape Experience sign, we continued to go over the last hour. We’d hoped to solve the scenario, but our failure to do so didn’t diminish our enthusiasm. Rather, we were high on the mental endorphins you stir up when you do something unique and outside the norm.

I’ve since come back down to Earth, but my passion for The Escape Experience remains high. If it sounds like something you’d enjoy, I can’t recommend it enough.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to wrestle Strobl off the couch and take a nap. I’m done like a Christmas turkey!

To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.

To book an Escape Experience, visit escapeexperiencechattanooga.com.