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Escape rooms blend mystery, adventure, and excitement

Nov 30, 2016 09:37AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Bill Wright, seated at the warden's desk in the Shawshank Room in the Wilmington, Del. escape room. Wright owns the business with his wife and business partner, Vanessa Espinal.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

Bill Wright is standing in the middle of what's called the Shawshank Room and points out a few of the incredible details that a casual observer might miss. There's a checkerboard just like the one that the inmates used in “The Shawshank Redemption” on a table. Some of the contraband that Red was so well known for is scattered about in his prison cell. Nearby is Andy Dufresne's prison cell. The people who've seen “The Shawshank Redemption” more than a hundred times might identify this as Andy's cell by the prisoner number. Others will simply notice the iconic poster on the wall and know immediately whose cell it is.
“It's all about the details,” Wright said proudly, explaining that the Shawshank Room's details are so specific that there are even letters written by Andy Dufresne to the state requesting funds for the library.
Certainly part of the fun of escape rooms is being placed right in the middle of the action in a setting from a beloved movie or book. Axxiom Escape Rooms has tapped a variety of fictional worlds to create themed rooms, including everything from The Pirates of the Caribbean to Sherlock Holmes to Hogwarts.
Wright  and his wife, Vanessa Espinal, are the principal owners of Axxiom Escape Rooms. They opened the first Delaware location in Newark in August of 2015, and within just a few weeks the popularity of that escape room exploded as word of Newark's newest attraction spread. Before long, Wright was planning to expand to other areas in the First State. An Axxiom escape room opened in Wilmington in April, followed by one in Rehoboth Beach in July. A newly remodeled location in Newark is slated to open this month. A fourth venue is being planned for Middletown sometime in the first half of 2017.
On the outside, the buildings might seem nondescript, but inside the escape rooms that are being designed and built by Wright and his team are increasingly elaborate and entertaining. The rooms being created now—the Hogwarts Room is one example—is much more advanced than the first-generation rooms that debuted when the Newark location first opened.
It's hardly a mystery as to why escape rooms are such a sensation in the entertainment industry in Asia and Europe and Canada and, now, throughout the U.S. They blend mystery, adventure, and excitement, and with the limitless number of themes they can appeal to people of all ages.
Wright has seen people as young as 6 and as old as 76 enjoy the rooms that he has helped create. He personally delights at the memory of seeing three generations of one family working collaboratively to figure out a clue in one of the rooms.
“We have something for everyone,” Wright explained. “Our rooms are exciting and challenging, but very rewarding, too. We have figured out a way to cater to all the different demographics.”
Here's how an escape room works: A team of people are locked in a room and are given a set amount of time—usually an hour—to collect clues and solve puzzles to help them escape. Teamwork is extremely important. There can be anywhere from four to ten people on a team, though sometimes a group will be slightly larger. Each room is designed with a certain level of difficulty, which helps determine how long it should take a team to find a way out. Sometimes, escaping one room only leads to a new room and another adventure. Generally, people can expect to spend about an hour to complete the challenge.
The staff monitors each escape room and can send participants hints in real time as they attempt to find the hidden clues or solve the puzzles.
Wright said that at Axxiom Escape Rooms, only about 20 percent of the groups solve the mystery in the allotted time, which proves that they are challenging. For more difficult rooms, like the Sherlock Room, only about two percent can expect to complete the mission in its entirety in the allotted time. At Axxion Escape Rooms, Wright carefully plans out the rooms so that there is a range of difficulty levels to suit any group. 
Escape rooms have become a worldwide sensation since the first ones opened about a decade ago. Wright explained that they were first popular in Asia, and Europeans caught on to them very early on, too. It wasn't until sometime around 2014 that escape rooms started gaining a wide audience in the U.S.
Wright was working in strategic management for a retail company when he went on a business trip to Canada and visited his first escape room.
“Toronto and Ontario were hotbeds for escape rooms,” Wright explained. “We probably did about a half a dozen escape rooms on that trip to see what they were like.”
By the time he returned home, Wright was thinking about the possibilities of opening one in Delaware. He and Espinal visited an escape room in Philadelphia, and they did a lot of research online.
“It's a very new industry,” Wright explained. “We wanted to make sure that we did it right.”
They were soon coming up with room designs and their own clues that would be utilized in their new business.
Wright and Espinal come up with a lot of the ideas themselves. Sometimes an idea will start with a picture that Espinal brings to Wright. 
“Vanessa really has the artistry and the imagination,” Wright explained. They will then discuss how the room might be built.
Wright's step-father, John Venier, was a general contractor, and is enormously helpful in the design and construction process. Vanessa' brother, Ciro Perla, is a certified automation engineer who assists with the advanced technology. Working together as a team, they can design and build some pretty impressive rooms. And each new room builds on what they've done before, so if a room debuted at the Newark location and received positive reviews from visitors, there might a few new additions when that same room is opened at the Wilmington location. Wright explained that they rotate the rooms around to the different locations on a somewhat regular basis so that there is consistently something new for guests to enjoy.
It was a priority, Wright said, to make these escape rooms enjoyable for everyone, including for children as they can use their minds to find clues and solve the puzzles. They even designed a Goldilocks Room intended for children between the ages of 4 and 8.
“This is definitely educational for children,” Wright said. “It will challenge them in a good way. We build our rooms for families.”
Most of the rooms at the renovated Newark location and the Rehoboth location, as well as two of the rooms at the Wilmington location, are accessible to people with disabilities. There is no physical danger or great physical exertion required to participate in the escape rooms.
“We want everybody to enjoy their experience here,” Wright said.
Axxiom's escape rooms are certainly great for families, for friends who want a new activity to enjoy, and even for large corporations that are looking for team-building opportunities for employees. Wright said that his three locations have already proven to be tremendously popular with employers who want to offer their workers an inexpensive perk.
According to Wright, one important difference between Axxiom Escape Rooms and other companies in the business is that here all the rooms are private. At some escape rooms, two different groups might be paired up in the same room to reach a minimum number of participants.
“Our rooms are private,” Wright explained. “So if the room is built for eight, but a mom and dad want to come in with their two kids, they are in there on their own.”
Axxiom Escape Rooms also requires a smaller deposit to reserve a room rather than making a group pay for each full ticket in advance.
Wright said that he would love to work with community groups to arrange fundraisers that would benefit good causes.
“That's really a great way to strengthen the ties to the community,” he explained.
Even though Axxiom Escape Rooms opened its first location just 14 months ago, the business has evolved very quickly. Wright is very excited about opening in a new location in Newark with a Star Wars-inspired room, and end-of-the-world room, and a Hogwarts Room.
“Those three rooms will absolutely set us apart,” Wright explained. 
Dozens of groups booked the Hogwarts Room more than a month before it even opened, an indication of the growing number of escape room fans in Delaware.
Wright doesn't want to share too much information about the rooms that are still being planned because a big part of the fun for guests is the element of surprise. But he's really excited about a new space-themed room that they will be debuting later this year. 
“We're going to have people board a spaceship,” he said with a smile. “And they're going to feel like they are flying.”
He said that the company will always pride itself on delivering thrills to the guests.
“We need to be nimble and evolve constantly,” Wright explained. “We're going to make some of the rooms very elaborate. We're putting a lot into the architecture. We're never finished with these rooms. We're always going to be working very hard to keep making things better.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

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