November 13, 2015 by Sankha Wanigasekara
Traditionally, weekends for teenagers and grown-ups would involve a visit to the movie theater, a Netflix binge, a bout of drinks at a pub or watching Sunday Night Football. Besides the drinking, all these activities require the adult to be a passive observer without having to put an ounce of thought into the endeavor. One might argue that playing Lumosity keeps those brain muscles well-flexed, but memory matrices and mental arithmetic can only take you so far. Luckily, a new solution has presented itself in the form of escape rooms.
Escape the Room is exactly what it sounds like. The primary objective of an escape room is to find a path out of an enclosed space, with most featuring an ambience of terror and suspense. In essence, it is similar to being in an installment of the “Saw” movie franchise. A group of individuals, who can be strangers or friends, enter a room and must sift through codes and clues to exit and see the light of day. Here in Philadelphia, there are several such locations, but the most recent to pop up may be the most intriguing: “Escape the 1980s.”
Located in East Passyunk, this escape room acts as a time machine into the 1980s, starting from the set design and going all the way down to the music. The interior is flushed with color schemes you would find in an Olivia Newton-John music video while cabbage patch kids and vintage board games sit in the lobby. A look at a corner revealed an ancient television coupled with the now extinct Atari game console. Hidden within the escape room was a library of aging Video Home System tapes that surprisingly worked after all these years. The venue could easily pass for a museum honoring the last decade of Generation X. That was the exact ambience that co-founders Elisabeth and Michael Garson were striving for, and Michael had a particularly difficult time locating these artifacts.
“It was a lot of searching on Craigslist, EBay, and I guess it took a bit of travelling as well. One guy owned a closed down video store. I got a third of the videos there, some were carefully selected and we had to pay top dollar,” Michael said.
Escape rooms in general were targeted at the masses. But having the entertainment format focused on one specific time period risked alienating people who were not fortunate enough to live through the decade, depending on one’s attitudes toward trends and fads of the time. According to Elisabeth, though, this was hardly a vulnerability to the business. It in fact turned out to be its greatest strength.
She said, “When I first started this I was like, this is for Gen X, we need something for us! That was my attitude. But we have more millennials than Gen Xers come through this game. They know enough about the 80s, they appreciate it. So our audience is really those two. We have millennials, and Gen Xers, and auxiliary groups, our kids and baby boomers.”
“Escape the 1980s” first graced the Philly population in early September. Like all good things, it won’t last, despite drawing crowds on weekends and even during the week. The issue is an inherent structural problem in the business model, one shared by all organizations in the industry. A particular escape room is merely one game, with permanent rules, clues and codes. A particular individual can only play the game once before spoiling it for himself or herself.
“Escape the 1980s” is no different, as the nature of the game doesn’t change daily. According to Elisabeth, though, there is a solution through the parent company she co-founded, Steel Owl. “Escape the 1980s” has the scope to live on in a different geographic market where people haven’t played the game, just not in Philly. But instead of leaving a vacuum, Elisabeth and Michael would then come up with a new variety of an escape room for the local crowd. In this business, you are only as good as your next idea.
That being said, the ‘80s themed setting should be able to hold out for a while longer against the competition and the entertainment’s constraints, with the owners giving it a maximum of six months. The way Elisabeth described it explains why.
“I love all escape rooms, I love anybody who’s doing one. I think ours is different, but I already said that my bend is to not have mystery, to not have tense, so for me, mine is my favorite one because I feel like it’s a party when you’re inside, and the other ones, if you’re a person who’s really into mystery or scary stuff, that might be a better fit for you, but ours is just flat out fun.”