With 20 minutes left to go, Sam Gregory of Columbia and his nine grandchildren were stymied as they raced to crack the puzzle of the last three of 10 locks and escape the Wild West room.

"This is so annoying: What does that clue mean?" said Colleen McKenna, 20, flipping over an object with a clue written with a black Sharpie underneath.


Given an extra hint, the family broke the last three locks with 3 minutes and 36 seconds left.

The family booked the hour's entertainment last week at Escape This Live in Catonsville, which became the Baltimore area's first "escape room" when it opened in 2014, as a Christmas gift for Gregory, 70, from his grandchildren.

Popular in Asia, Europe and on the West Coast, the concept is growing in Maryland. The owners of Escape This Live plan to open a location in Towson in the next few months and a competitor plans to open an escape room in Annapolis in February. There are also five locations in Washington, six in Virginia and one in Delaware, according to escaperoomdirectory.com, a list of escape rooms worldwide. The directory counts more than 1,300 locations in 62 countries.

Escape This Live offers groups a choice of two rooms in Catonsville — one Western-themed, the other pirate-themed. Customer groups are locked in for an hour and must find clues, solve riddles and unlock puzzles in search of the final key needed to escape. An employee watches a video feed and can offer a limited number of clues if they get stuck.

Groups can rent an entire room at the Catonsville location for $250 or go as individuals and join a group for $29 each. Some of the people who were randomly teamed up have stayed in touch after the experience, said Rachel Middleton, who owns the franchise business with her husband, Steve.

"Typically, everybody has something to contribute," Middleton said. "Not everyone thinks the same, so you have to work together as a team. The information that you're finding might help open up a lock that someone else is working on."

Escape rooms are part of a growing number of businesses that offer unusual experiences, reflecting a trend of people placing more value on having a good time than accumulating items. They include trampoline parks in Columbia and Timonium, indoor go-kart tracks in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, cat cafes in Japan and Washington, D.C., and pirate cruises in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Some say that since today's generation spends so much time on social media and digital devices, having a three-dimensional, tactile experience has become more important. Experiences also can be shared on social media and be valuable social currency.

"I don't know if it's a generational thing," said Jason Hardebeck, the co-founder of the Foundery, a Baltimore makerspace that offers classes and workshops in welding and other tool-based projects. "I think experiences kind of lend themselves more toward social media, whether it's tagging yourself in a photo or you were at a certain place or did a certain thing."

The experience economy is here to stay, Hardebeck said. "I don't think this is a fad; I think there's a fundamental shift."

Elana Fine, the managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that consumers' expectations have risen for the experiences they pay for, whether it's at a restaurant, movie theater or at an event.

"There's innovation in all parts of our economy right now," Fine said. "I'm not surprised there's more innovation about what we do with our free time."

Fine said escape room businesses may face challenges in educating potential customers about the concept. They also risk having customers not want to return to repeat the experience once it's been figured out, she said.

"Designing the room to be fun and keep people entertained is probably harder than you think," she said.


Mission Escape Rooms, to be opened in Annapolis in February by a 19-year-old professional auto racer, will offer four rooms to escape from.

"Annapolis has retail and we have restaurants, but there's not necessarily anything to do," said Jason Cherry, the owner of Mission Escape Rooms. "The hour or 50 minutes that you're in it just flies by. It just made sense for us to pursue it here."

The Middletons plan to add a third room with a time machine theme to their Catonsville location this month and want to eventually open a fourth room. The Towson location will feature two rooms. While they plan to change the themes every year to keep it fresh, Rachel Middleton said she was confident customers would return because of the variety of rooms to choose from.

Developing each room takes months, she said. The puzzles are challenging; only about 15 percent to 20 percent of groups escape the room within the hour, Middleton said.

Middleton said she and her husband learned about the concept a few years ago while on vacation in Arizona and became enthusiasts, visiting at least 20 escape rooms in different cities. Many fans will seek out escape rooms whenever they're on vacation, she said.

"I think people like being challenged and they like learning new things," she said. "It's fun because it's not anything that you've done before."

After opening the Catonsville location, the couple began franchising the concept, and there now are seven other locations around the country, with another soon to open in Houston.

Gregory's nine grandchildren ranged in age from 9 to 26, some of them visiting from North Carolina for the holidays. They cheered when they cracked the final lock.

"It's right up my alley," said Gregory, who also plays video games with his grandkids. "It was worth every penny."

Shanteé Woodards of the Baltimore Sun Media Group contributed to this article.