Larry Gates was stumped. After half an hour of scouring his surroundings and finding a handful of clues, the engineer from Anaheim Hills wasn’t making any progress toward finding a key and escaping from the room he had been locked into. A clock on a television above him counted steadily down toward zero.
Gates spread his findings out on a desk in front of him: riddles scrawled on paper scraps, a cipher identified from an obscure book, batteries, a magnifying glass and a weathered globe, to name a few. Twenty-eight minutes and 30 seconds remaining, the clock read.
“Who is the Sherlock weirdo who played Dungeons and Dragons?” Gates, 51, said in frustration. “There’s too many different clues.”
Gates, his wife, Amy, and friends, Katrina and Doris Zborowsky, each paid $30 to be locked in the room for an hour at Exodus Escape Room in Anaheim. The business challenges guests to solve a series of puzzles and unlock the door within a 60-minute time limit.
This isn’t a game of brute force or gymnastic ability, said owner Chad McLain, who grew up and attended school in Yorba Linda. There’s no need to kick down doors, punch holes in drywall or crawl through vents.
“It’s a complete puzzle,” said McLain’s wife, Demetra, who co-owns the business. “The room itself is a maze of clues and riddles and trying to figure out which goes in what order, because that’s the only way you’ll find your way out.”
Chad and Demetra McLain opened Exodus Escape Room in November. The couple is looking to follow on the success of similar operations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Europe and Asia.
“The primary thing that made it attractive to me was the opportunity for growth,” Chad McLain said. “I saw what this was in Europe and Asia and the potential for it to become just as big here in the states.”
McLain said he believed his business is the only escape room in Orange County. The couple plans to open a second escape room in Irvine in the near future, and is talking with investors on additional locations.
The entertainment concept is born from point-and-click adventure video games, in which players are tasked with exploring a virtual room, finding clues and solving a puzzle to escape. Popular in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the games are making a resurgence. McLain said he used similar concepts while designing Exodus’ puzzles.
He watches guests via closed-circuit cameras as they attempt to solve the room. McLain said he would unlock the door immediately if a guest panics or is injured. The owner can also deliver a free clue to players via instant messaging displayed on a television in each room.
McLain resets all of the props and items after guests solve the puzzle, or time runs out. Each room takes about 15 minutes to reset, he said.
Many guests wrongly assume that Exodus’s two escape rooms have a haunted house bent. While one of the two rooms is themed after a dimly-lit torture dungeon, actors do not jump out and scare guests, and horror elements, such as gore, are not present. McLain said the rooms – the other has a Sherlock Holmes theme – are designed to be family-friendly.
While Exodus is open to all ages, McLain said the activity is very popular amongst 20 and 30 year olds. Guests often book rooms for birthday parties, corporate team-building events and date nights.
Exodus’ two rooms are the size of large offices. Up to 14 players can play in one room at a time.
The couple plans to add a third room with a masquerade theme in the near future, McLain said.
McLain, 33, who now lives in Anaheim Hills, said he has founded four businesses over the past decade. His last venture, a property preservation company, spanned markets in California, New Mexico and Texas. McLain said he began looking into the escape room concept after a friend showed him the idea about a year ago.
Designing the puzzles and working with guests is much more entertaining than past ventures, McLain said. He spent hours testing the two current puzzles, and even enlisted the help of his 11-year-old son to test the difficulty.
McLain said he enjoys observing groups as they work together to solve the rooms and burst victoriously through the door with only seconds to spare.
“That’s probably the second paycheck with this business,” McLain said.
Despite some mid-puzzle frustrations, Gates said he enjoyed solving the room. He and his group managed to escape with less than 10 minutes to spare. Gates has gone through mazes before, and his family enjoys card games, so the concept of an escape room wasn’t entirely foreign, he said.
“I thought it was good,” Gates said. “It’s a novelty. Something interesting.”