Rusty lock on a steel door

Theme parks thrive on the concept of bringing our wildest imaginations to life. More and more in recent years, the theme park experience has moved away from mere spectating to a new focus on fully immersing audiences in our favorite stories.

Universal embraced immersion masterfully in the way they connected Universal Studios Orlando’s Diagon Alley with Islands of Adventure’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter through a ride on the Hogwarts Express. Similarly, Walt Disney World’s Avatar: Flight of Passage could have been a simple simulator along the lines of Star Tours. Instead, Disney crafted a vivid experience where guests experience the full process of being paired with a Navi avatar on the lush world of Pandora. If Disney’s ambitious plans for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney Hollywood Studios are any clue, theme park entertainment is heading truly exciting places.

Dragon at Diagon Alley at Universal Studios

What if audiences could go one step further, however? Through theme parks, we gain the opportunity to smell, taste, and bask in the fantastical. However, the adventures are still scripted. Even on a randomized ride like Star Tours, the core experience remains essentially the same. Disney has made commendable strides searching for the next evolution in theme park immersion through possibilities like virtual reality and “choose your adventure” style ride elements, but they still have a long way to go.

What if there were already a theme park-style attraction where audiences truly became characters in the story being told? What if the course of that attraction depended fully on guests’ choices, participation, and cleverness, to the point that every ride might prove different depending on those involved?

Such an experience does exist just a short drive away from the realms of Disney, Universal, and Sea World. Welcome to the fascinating world of Orlando’s escape games…

What are escape games?

Man working on escape room puzzle

Image: SparkFun Electronics - Conundrum Escape Room, (license), Link

If you are an avid traveler or adventure junkie, you might already be familiar with escape games. Games have steadily popped up across the country for the last five years, and their popularity is still going strong. The concept is simple: escape a locked room in one hour or less.

Most escape rooms surround a thrilling theme: solving a bank heist, stopping a terrorist plot, escaping a mummy’s tomb, or even locating a buried treasure. Horror themes are especially common, such as evading the clutches of a serial killer or the wrath of a haunted house. Each experience is broadly different, and while each new room helps hone your puzzle-solving skills, there is no telling what to expect in each adventure until the timer starts. Most games allow capacity for 2-8 people per game, and it is a regular practice that smaller parties might be paired with complete strangers.

Once your party is briefed and locked in the room (don’t worry, most rooms have a mechanism by which you can leave in an emergency), you have one hour to work together to find hidden clues and solve complex puzzles to escape. For example, your objective in one game might be to find the hidden treasure of Atlantis. To do that, you need to find a torch so you can see, discover a mysterious codex hidden in a pile of trash, and locate a key to open a treasure chest containing instructions for finding a secret passage out. Puzzles are layered upon puzzles and each problem solved usually leads to 2-3 more.

Old key in lock

Image: Bob M ~, Flickr (license)

The puzzles usually increase in difficulty as you go, so don’t be fooled by the space you begin in. Almost every escape experience we have tried has included hidden passages and crawlspaces to reach new stages of the mission. If you ever played old point-and-click styles adventure games like Loom, Kings Quest, or Monkey Island, the escape game concept might seem familiar. Stepping into an escape room is like stepping into a living video game where you are the heroes (or victims) in a thrilling tale, and the mission will live or die on your choices.


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