The Escape Room Awaits

A few months ago, I stumbled across Jessica Contrera’s article in the Post about the latest craze in live entertainment: escape rooms. After reading just a little about it, I knew it was something I had to try.

Taking their cue from video games and movies where the player or main character is locked in a room and must investigate the room’s contents to figure out puzzles in order to unlock the door, escape rooms essentially translate that concept into real life. The origins of creating this kind of real space might trace back to Europe, Asia, or possibly Silicon Valley, but no matter where the first one started, it seems this is simply an idea whose time has come. For those of us that grew up playing these types of video games and watching these movies, getting the chance to try it out in real life taps into something deep. Call it a return to childhood, call it a desire to be social, call it a critical thinking challenge – it’s a phenomenon that’s taking off. Escape rooms are worldwide, they’re popular among people my age with disposable income, and most importantly to this story, there are a few that recently opened up in DC.

I convinced a few friends to go recently one Friday evening, after much coordination of schedules. I chose Escape Room Live DC, mainly because it seemed the most popular based on reviews and it was the one featured in the Post article, but there are others out there. The same company is even opening a location in Old Town in a few months, so if we’d only waited we could have had a somewhat easier time getting to the place.

As it was, Glover Park is a really great neighborhood, but it sure isn’t Metro accessible. To get there you just have to get creative, be willing to walk up some hills, and plan some extra time. My part of the crew, Steve and Gerritt, took Metro to DuPont Circle, then caught a bus over to Wisconsin Avenue. Matt hopped on the bus at Foggy Bottom, another decent option. Brian and Stephen drove in and took their chances with street parking, which worked out great for them.

Operating under the theory that you can’t escape a room on an empty stomach, we hit up Surfside for a tasty taco dinner and beers and had plenty of time to stroll down the street and get psyched up for the big event.

The room is in the basement of a building, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. There are various spy-themed decorations scattered throughout, plus an old school arcade game console table. Steve and I killed some time playing Galaga while we waited for the groups ahead of us to finish. All in all, the clientele all looked to be about our age, though I did spot at least one group that looked like a family of all ages. We reserved the entire room so we wouldn’t be grouped with strangers, but if you don’t have that many people in your group or you’re just out on a date or with a friend, you can jump into any open room at any reservation time.

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Waiting to escape.

Before long, it was our turn. I have to say I think we were feeling a little overconfident going into it. Among the six of us, we probably felt that our backgrounds, overall knowledge of games and puzzles, and general critical thinking skills would make us a lock to break some kind of record. I had deliberately chosen the smallest room available on the website, which also happened to be the most difficult. After receiving a briefing from the Gamemaster, he led us to our room. The general guidelines were: don’t break anything, not everything is a clue, and you have 45 minutes to get out from the time the door is locked. I glanced at the leaderboard posted next to the door as I walked in. For six people, the record time was around 42 minutes. That should have been our warning.

I won’t give out any spoilers about the solution for our particular room. I will only say that it was much, much more difficult than we had anticipated, and it did not contain a framed photo of Bill Murray. And there were a nice mixture of number puzzles, word puzzles, and somewhat-physical challenges in addition to the straight-up riddle solving. To grade us fairly, I think we narrowed in pretty quickly on the various clues and puzzles that were readily available from examining the room – the “opening round.” But figuring out what to do with the information we had – jumbled numbers, cryptic phrases – and how to apply them to the various combination locks we found to keep going – was mind-boggling.

After 15 minutes or so of bouncing around from one puzzle to the next and not making much headway, the Gamemaster’s voice chimed in from the webcam stationed on a wall near the door. “Do you guys want a hint?”

Of course, he’d been watching us flounder the whole time.

That was the moment of truth. Did we swallow our collective pride and give up any chance at reaching the leaderboard, or did we plow stubbornly on and risk not escaping at all?

We went with the clues.  In the end we needed five of them, but we did escape with only a couple of minutes to spare. That’s what counts, right?

The few, the proud. The escapees.
The few, the proud. The escapees.

I think you can tell from the post-escape picture taken by the Gamemaster that it was going to take a while to convince ourselves of that. Even if I did get to dress like some kind of weird Viking.

In the end, we left with a bit of a defeated gloom and more than a few bruised egos. We wound down the night at Breadsoda so the rest of the guys could drown their defeat in beverages while I watched. Our consensus was that we did okay considering we had no prior knowledge of what types of puzzles to expect, and that we probably could tackle a room of similar difficulty now that we’d been through the wringer. Maybe we were just trying to make ourselves feel better. Maybe one of these days we’ll schedule a rematch and see.

As for me, now that I’ve gotten a taste of escaping, I really do want to try it again sometime. I’ve got enough family members that enjoy mysteries that I think we can make a go of it. With new rooms coming to Old Town and an occasional reset of clues and puzzles in their existing rooms, Escape Room Live is set up to capture every other Indiana Jones or Legend of Zelda fan in the DC Metro area for years to come.

(There’s not much here, but check out the Flickr gallery if you want.)

Springfield! My Kind of Town (Center)

This past Friday, Gina and I met up with our friends Jen and Stephen to partake in a time-honored suburban pastime: going to a new shopping center within the first few weeks of its opening. Around here, that’s a dangerous proposition that could cost you untold hours of pain and frustration while wading through crowds. But with reservations in hand, we decided to try it anyway. We decided to eat dinner at the Springfield Mall.

Except it’s not the Springfield Mall anymore. It’s been reborn as the Springfield Town Center. A phoenix, rising from the ashes. Rebuilt and transformed from its previous status as a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and the home to, among other things, Mr. Watchband). The dinginess has been chiseled away to reveal the shiny new town center hiding underneath, which in an unusual twist is still pretty much a mall. But hey, it’s a nice one! The corridors, they’re so wide. The chandeliers, so sparkly. The undertone of depressing decline and inevitable deterioration – it’s gone! The Target that is attached finally flung open its inside doors once more, embracing the stylish boutique stores outside where once there was a DMV and the “V” Spa. I hope Mr. Watchband is smiling down from above.

I also hope that the other restaurants and the remainder of the food court open soon. Last weekend, the only functioning eateries were Maggiano’s (where we ate, but without the reservations we had it was going to be a three hour wait), Panda Express, and Sarku Japan. I know I definitely love Americanized Chinese food, but a place that size needs something more. The lines resembled those for the port-a-potties before a big race. With Yard House, Chuy’s, and others only opening over the next few weeks, it looks as though the developers might have jumped the gun a little bit in opening the place.

After our dinner, the four of us walked around the mall a bit. I was never in Northern Virginia during the old Mall’s heyday, but I generally hear people who grew up here talk about it with a mixture of fondness for what it was and regret for what it had become. Apparently, it was the mall to go to for years, but over time the clientele gradually got distracted and enticed by other, newer shopping elsewhere. This left the place open for the gangs and the other bad stuff that was bound to follow.

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Princess Di even approved. C’mon, people.

As we walked around, Stephen began wondering if the Town Center would suffer the same fate as its alter ego in just a few years. It is possible, but I’m staying optimistic. I think that the new restaurants, gym, and movie theater coupled with the anchor stores will make the Town Center interesting and varied enough to keep people coming back. The only thing that gave any of us pause was that many stores were still unoccupied or unopened – again, maybe the opening date was a little too early? Surely the place is at least fully leased?

While the heart of Springfield itself seems destined to stay nothing more than a jumble of roads and highway interchanges broken up by strip malls (albeit convenient ones!), I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the rebooted version of the Mall will stick around for a while.

Exploring The Inner Frontier

Over Memorial Day weekend, with family in town, Gina and I were faced with what’s become an increasingly common decision: what do we do for entertainment? We are fortunate to live near a vibrant city, with so many opportunities available, and yet we sometimes struggle to come up with fun, different things to do when our families come into town. As wonderful as it is, there’s only so many times you can take the same people to the Mall. And since we have a bunch of family that don’t live here and have no reason to come other than to visit us, our roles as cultural ambassadors to the DC region are even more highlighted.

I’ve always said I don’t mind this role. I’m happy to play the tour guide when I have to. However, I’m coming up on my ninth year living here, and there are spans of time when I still fall into the trap of many residents of the area, when the daily chores of working and commuting leave little energy for doing any extracurriculars in the evenings and weekends. That’s always going to happen from time to time, I get that, but I want to never take vistas like the Mall or the Potomac from Mount Vernon for granted. I want to enjoy checking out new live music venues when I have the time. I’m not making a grand statement that I’m never going to let Gina and myself spend a quiet minute at home again, because I value that time just as much, but at the same time I don’t want to be one of those people who lives five minutes from the beach or an awesome park but never goes there. This is my home now, but I don’t want to lose out on these opportunities to feel like a tourist with the insider benefits of being a local.

Maybe some of you reading this are in the same boat. That’s why I’m going to use Ramble On to occasionally post some highlights from things Gina and I have done locally and recently that might be of interest to check out. There are many things that fall in the “hey, I’ve been meaning to do that” category, and maybe we can help steer you in the right direction. I’ve decided to call the series “The DC I See: Experiences of a Local Tourist.” Just because I can.

The first experience I’ll tell you about came during the aforementioned Memorial Day weekend not too long ago. With my father- and stepmother-in-law, we tried out one of those Potomac river shuttles that are so busily plying the river during warmer weather. There are a number of routes, usually involving some connection between Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown, National Harbor, or any combination of the three. Other (longer and pricier) options include the Spirit of Washington and Odyssey dinner cruises. Our tickets for the jaunt from Old Town Harbor to Georgetown only ran about $26 per adult, while in comparison a night of fine dining on the water will set you back around $100 per person or more during peak times.

We went late on Sunday afternoon to sync up with some Georgetown dinner plans. It being a holiday weekend, I think the lines were a little longer than normal. The boats were also running behind schedule due to, as the skipper explained later in much more diplomatic words than I’ll use here, a flood of inexperienced kayakers mucking around the Georgetown waterfront, all but inviting themselves to be knocked over by larger boats’ wakes. For this reason, our boat was about 45 minutes late, but luckily we had given ourselves plenty of cushion to get to our restaurant.

Once we were finally aboard, the courteous staff made us feel at home, except for the guy who banged my knee with the gangplank steps as he loaded them onboard. But that’s not that much different from my dog Heidi nipping my feet to get my attention, so I guess it was a little like home. There’s a limited snack bar aboard each vessel, good for a bottle of water or soda if you’re really thirsty, but the tastiest thing you’re going to get there is some popcorn if you’re lucky. There was also a recording playing in the background during the cruise, timed to talk about the sights of the river as we chugged past, but with a full crowd of tourists onboard, we couldn’t really hear it, so I filled in the gaps by pointing out landmarks as best I could for our 30-45 minute voyage.

That last paragraph might make the cruise seem like an ill-advised tourist trap, but that is not the case. The lure, and the price of admission, is all about being on the water. There’s something transformative about seeing familiar sights from the middle of the Potomac. Couple that with calm waters and a beautiful day like we had, and the whole experience turns downright magical. I imagine those kayakers we had to avoid were trying to get the same feeling by being that much closer to the waves, but letting an experienced skipper sail you along so you can get lost in the smell of the spray and the light playing off the churning wake as you watch airplanes take off from Reagan is perfectly fine by me.

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With a valid ticket, you can choose any return sailing that suits you, something we were thankful for after our filling meal at Filomena. Timed with the sunset, our cruise back to Old Town was even more relaxing, the gentle lull of the shuttle lulling our happily sated stomachs into an aura of contentment.
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We sailed the Washington Monuments Cruise by the Potomac Riverboat Company, operating seven days a week until at least 8PM for most daily cruises thorough the summer, but check the website for the latest schedules.

Presidential Walk

Recently, Gina and I used a Groupon to make the trip over to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in downtown DC. This was one of those blatant tourist attractions that we’d been skipping so far in our DC travels, so a Groupon seemed the perfect way to try it out.

The DC branch has the usual wax figures of movie stars, musicians, and athletes that one associates with the chain. You can, for instance, sit across from George Clooney, or pose with Beyonce or Rihanna, or pretend to analyze a tough putt with Tiger Woods. What’s fun about the museum though, and what is likely one of the reasons that it and its brethren are so popular, is that they totally realize the concept is a little cheesy and don’t pretend their eerily lifelike figures are priceless works of art. They’re meant for leaning on, touching, and giving high fives to someone famous who most people will never meet – or who are now only alive in our collective memory.

But the truly unique thing about the DC branch is its Presidential Gallery. This is the only place in the world where you can shoulder up to wax figures of all 44 presidents (plus some first ladies, other Founding Fathers, and notable figures from the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and so on). So it was on this day that I could finally fulfill my lifelong dream of checking out Chester A. Arthur’s impressive whiskers in person. The same goes for Martin Van Buren’s funky facial hair, as well, not to mention the power mustache of ol’ Teddy Roosevelt.

"Bully! Let's go build some national parks!"
“Bully! Let’s go build some national parks!”

My unnatural obsession with presidential facial hair aside, some of the statues are quite eerie. You can pretend to shake Thomas Jefferson’s hand and walk away swearing that his eyes were gazing directly at you. Others were jarringly different than what I had in my head, which broke the illusion for me. Nixon, for instance, seemed simultaneously younger and older than I’d always pictured him, which was weird. And is Jimmy Carter’s smile really that big? As you wrap up the Presidential Gallery and head into the celebrity corner to finish your tour, the museum also has a nice mockup of the Oval Office where you can get your picture taken in the big chair. Then they shuffle you over to the Obamas (and, one would imagine, each future sitting president) for one final picture that you can buy for only $24.95 at the gift shop, thank-you-very-much-next-person-in-line.

So, all in all, it was a nice diversion for a couple of hours. One tip: don’t bother purchasing the $5 “guidebook” at the ticket counter unless you just want a short Wikipedia bio of each president. There’s no map inside, but the museum is clearly marked so you never feel like you’re getting lost.

In case you missed the link, here is the full Flickr gallery of our trip.