The tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begins uneventfully. The director’s video greeting sets the stage as we wait in a room surrounded by test tubes and filing cabinets.
Then the unthinkable happens: An outbreak. A startling buzzer goes off. A red light pulsates. We’re on lockdown. Before you can say “Ebola,” we learn we’re the only ones left in the building. It’s up to us to stop it.
We’re at Urban Escape Games in Alpharetta, Atlanta’s answer to the international trend of real-life escape games. Groups of people ages 14 and older, from birthday parties to date night couples to corporate groups, fork over $28 to be locked in a room. They have one hour to gather the right clues and bust out.
Renata Shore, a senior manager with Cisco Systems, Inc. said the experience was a great team building exercise for her and her colleagues. “The escape games themselves were fun and challenging, and it really gave us an opportunity to work together to solve problems, to push others to succeed and to cheer for each breakthrough.”
Owner Mary Oakes got the idea for the business after her family played a real-life escape game while on vacation in the Northeast.
“Immediately my children, Kelsey and Preston, both said, ‘Mom, this needs to be your next business,’ ” Oakes recalled. “Being a serial entrepreneur with a background in business and psychology, I thought I’d bring this unique form of entertainment here to Georgia.”
Based on popular virtual games found online and as apps, the in-the-flesh versions have been sweeping Europe and Asia for the past two years. In fact, Oakes says they’re so hot overseas, you have to book games weeks in advance.
Urban Escape Games opened in December in a nondescript Alpharetta office park. The 4,500 square feet of office space doubles as an interactive playground. Guests choose from one of three games. In addition to “CDC Lockdown,” the “Mr. Magic’s” game finds players trapped in the trick laden rehearsal room of a local magician. “Murder Mystery” splits a team into two groups who attempt to solve the whodunit from separate rooms. The upcoming “Jewelry Heist” game will have guests hunting for stolen gems.
As players get busy, the one-hour time clock ticks away on a TV monitor. Each game includes three customized clues. Those in need of a nudge pick up the red phone for a chat with their respective game master. The game master watches the action via video feed and passes on hints to help players get out of a particular pickle.
Only about 35 percent of the players escape, but Oakes insists the games aren’t simply for brainiacs. A few tactics, however, remain essential.
“I always tell first timers three things,” Oakes said. “Teamwork is critical. Make sure you communicate with everyone, and don’t forget to investigate everything.”
And there’s plenty to investigate. Game designers craft a story line and formulate clues and challenges. Ideas materialize in the form of imaginative props and technology. A videographer creates slick intro videos, and techies whip up special effects, computer wizardry and mechanics. It’s one thing to dream up a hidden switch or mechanism. Then it has to work. The result is a theme park-worthy attraction.
“It surprised me how everything was put together so well,” said 18-year-old Lizz Calhoun of Alpharetta, whose birthday party group escaped with five seconds to spare. “I’ve always liked board games like Clue, and I thought it was great how you could experience it in real life.”
That’s what guests find alluring, said Oakes, especially families. In an age of electronic distraction, a hands-on activity is a gust of fresh air.
“Everyone puts down their phones,” she said. “It’s hard for people to do that at dinner nowadays. But for this solid hour, everybody puts their phone away and is totally immersed into the game.”