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Great Escapes Harford brings mysteries to life

The task Kirby Cole lays out to the Thomson family as they walk into The Magician's Dressing Room at Great Escapes Harford seems simple enough:

"You are here investigating the disappearance of Jordanzo, the famous magician. You're members of his fan club and he recently vanished, so you're trying to figure out where he is and what happened to him," she says.

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On this rainy Friday night, siblings Emily, 36, and Andrew Thomson, 30, of Bel Air and their mother, 63-year-old Amy, visiting from Michigan, have signed up for their first experience with the latest entertainment craze. They'll work together in an attempt to solve clues and puzzles before time runs out in the county's first escape room.

The trio is standing in a space decked out with furniture and decor befitting a magician from the turn of the century — a chest of drawers, a couch in a muted paisley print, a large wooden armoire. The accessories are sparse, considering everything needed to solve the mystery is already in the room.

"Be logical, use your mind, get creative. See if you notice any puzzles, patterns or anything unusual," Cole adds as she shuts the door for the game to begin.

They have an hour to find and solve algorithms, codes, mathematics and more that will lead them to the antidote that saves the magician, winning the game. And the clock is ticking.

Like so many entrepreneurial endeavors, Great Escapes Harford started on the back of a napkin, an idea sketched out in February in a Havre de Grace restaurant as Chris and Katie Cole contemplated life after Chris' retirement from the Maryland National Guard in 2018. At 52, he felt too young to drop out of the workforce.

The Kingsville couple and their three children, ages 15 to 22, had tried an escape room challenge in Ocean City on a family vacation the year before. They liked the experience, the teamwork it required and the fact that it was a good family activity for a range of older ages.

They opened the doors to Great Escapes Harford on Sept. 16, entering a niche entertainment industry growing by triple digits.

Escape rooms first appeared internationally in 2006 but are more recently gaining popularity in the U.S. Escape room locations increased from 22 in 2014 to 450 by the end of 2015, according to Room Escape Artist, a blog tracking the industry. The website Escape Room Directory lists more than 900 locations, including 12 in Maryland.

Concepts range from post-apocalyptic scenarios, horror themes and jail escapes to more staid scenarios such as mystery puzzles and mazes.

Great Escapes Harford offers The Magician's Dressing Room and two other rooms. In the Pharaoh's Chamber, players look for clues to uncover what's behind the disappearance of archaeological teams on expeditions into a pyramid. The Killer's Lair challenges game participants to escape the basement of a serial killer.

In its first two months of business, bookings have increased each weekend, the Coles said. They've had repeat customers, and one couple that completed all three games in one day.

The recommended minimum age is 14, and the Coles recommend six to 10 players.

"You need right brains and left brains. You need men; you need women. You need older people; you need younger people," Chris Cole said. "There's just things in the room, and you have to figure out how they work and how they relate to one another. So it's numbers, colors, shapes, sequences, repetition. The more people the better."

The Thomson family might have numbered only three, but that didn't give them pause in booking a family game night.

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After Kirby Cole, locks the door behind her — she is the oldest daughter of Chris and Katie Cole, who also employ their other two children, a sister-in-law and three local employees — the Thomsons are left alone in a yawning silence. The game begins.

They watch a short video that outlines the challenge in more detail and stand in a few seconds of silence before the puzzle-solving begins.

They immediately spot a crossword puzzle sitting on the coffee table and a number of locks gracing various handles and doors.

They talk aloud as they note various clues. Siblings Andrew and Emily do the most searching and out-loud wondering while Amy stands back with notebook and pen in hand as the appointed note taker.

They hunt for 10 minutes before the first break comes.

"I really like this mirror thing on the wall," Amy says, pointing to a wall decoration. "That would be cute if you got all antique mirrors in different sizes."

"I love that you're talking about decorating right now, Mom," Andrew says.

"Well I'm trying to clear my mind," she replies.

But Andrew and Emily end up searching in the area where mom pointed, and they find an important piece of the mystery.

This happens at least three more times; the siblings search, turn things over and talk through the search before hitting a potential dead end, when their mom interjects a seemingly unrelated observation that ultimately helps them move forward in the game.

Their time is running out when Andrew cracks an important code.

"Ta-da!" Amy Thomson says as Andrew pulls out the antidote and an associated note.

"Yay!" Emily says as Andrew laughs.

"Cool," Andrew says.

"Victory is ours!" Emily says, raising her hands in the air.

It's been 40 minutes.

Katie Cole peeks around the door as she opens it to the winning family: "I can't believe you've never done an escape room before. You did so well," she tells them.

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