In one room, mechanical doors swing open to provide access to a dragon’s lair. In another, airbags under the floor cause the ground to move, providing the feeling of being on a spaceship. A third room features an 11-foot-tall mock nuclear rocket, complete with smoke machines and loud sound effects.
Those are some of the new, high-tech escape rooms that are part of a recently relocated business in downtown Newark.
“No one else around is building rooms like us,” said Bill Wright, owner of Axxiom Escape Rooms at 280 E. Main St.
Escape rooms, sometimes referred to as “real-life video games,” began in Japan in 2007. Since then, their popularity has increased in the United States.
The concept is simple: Several people are locked in a room and given a set amount of time to use puzzles, brainteasers and other clues to find a way to escape. Employees watch the action through a surveillance system and can feed hints to the participants as needed.
Wright first opened the business, then called Exodus Escape Rooms, on Main Street in 2015. While successful, the business was forced to move after city officials realized they incorrectly allowed the business to open in a building not zoned for an indoor recreation facility. Instead of applying for a variance, Wright decided to move a short distance to a properly-zoned space in Market East Plaza.
Rather than just transfer his existing rooms to the new location, Wright spent more than a year designing new, interactive rooms and built them with help of family members with expertise in carpentry, computer programing and engineering.
While the old location’s rooms were mostly analog — clues hidden inside books, padlocks with hidden keys, etc. — the new ones use things like hidden RFID chips to provide a more magical feel to the experience.
Most of the rooms are equipped with computer screens, some with custom-designed programs based on the theme of the room. Smoke machines and sound systems provide special effects.
Wright also upgraded the construction quality of the rooms, providing a more realistic feel to the given scenario, such as a room with a bank robbery theme, complete with teller windows and a vault.
Ultimately, the forced move, while expensive, was a “blessing in disguise” because it motivated him to redesign his rooms, Wright said.
“It was painful. The biggest issue was paying rent in two places,” he said, adding that he appreciates the city’s code enforcement being patient while he readied the new location.
Wright opened the new location in July, but is still working to complete a couple of the rooms, including the spaceship and the nuclear rocket. He operates additional escape rooms in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach.
He also is getting ready to unveil his first mobile escape room, which he is building in a converted RV. Expected to be ready just in time for the Halloween season, the room will have a “creepy carnival” theme that involves a fortune-teller machine based on Zoltar from the movie “Big.” An Axxiom employee will be inside the machine to interact with customers, making it the company’s first room to feature a live actor.
The RV will be parked outside the Market East Plaza location and travel to events, such as the Mayor’s Harvest Festival at Olan Thomas Park on Oct. 8.
Admission to the escape room is $20 for adults and $15 for kids and students. The company, which gets a lot of business from corporate team-building events, also has a discounted corporate rate. For more information, visit www.axxiomes caperooms.com.