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Imagine you and your smartest friends locked in a room. To get out, you need to solve a series of puzzles. This is a thing now. It's called escape rooms, and they are popping up in major cities around the country. Noah Nelson of Turnstyle News reports, escape rooms are becoming a growing business.
NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: Amy Hartman and her friends have been trapped in a castle with the ghost of an evil wizard.
AMY HARTMAN: What'd you find?
MIKE BUTLER: I found that, and it's got, like, a little rope guy around it. It seems like it unties.
HARTMAN: I think - yeah.
NELSON: The skeleton of a king watches them from his throne in a room filled with armor, puzzles and a chest they'll need to open if they want to survive. They have just 60 minutes to escape or die.
WILL: Looks like German.
BUTLER: Yeah, I think so.
HARTMAN: (Laughter) Have you ever seen German?
NELSON: Of course, Hartman and friends aren't really trapped in a castle. Instead, they're in one of Los Angeles' many escape rooms, a new form of themed entertainment which has been popping up in warehouses, strip malls and other places you'd drive past without noticing for more than a year now.
HARTMAN: Whoa, guys, there's a whole other room full of stuff.
NELSON: The rooms are a little like video games come to life, filled with puzzles and gadgets that teams - usually of two to six people - have to solve in order to win. The phenomenon started in Japan and was brought over to Europe before arriving on American shores.
NATALIE LAPIDUS: I've never expected that I'm going to do something like this because I'm also, like, a manager. I have, like, a degree in business administration.
NELSON: That's Natalie Lapidus, who owns the castle escape room with her husband. This isn't a hobby for the couple, this is their livelihood. And their business, Maze Rooms, is growing, with six rooms in three locations in LA and a franchise in Austin. That's nothing compared to Moscow where there are scores of rooms. Lapidus and her husband emigrated from there a little over a year ago. At 26, Lapidus is living a geeky version of the American Dream.
LAPIDUS: I love this work because, you know, one day you're painting the walls, the other day you're sitting somewhere like in the business meeting discussing the franchise opportunities. So it's different.
NELSON: Tickets run around $30 a person at most places, or teams can buy out a room. But there's a catch - once a team beats a room, there's no more fun to be had. This is the inherent risk in the business model. There's constant pressure for room owners to find new customers or build new rooms to stay alive in a city's market. Because the market in America is new, no one knows yet how long a popular room can stay profitable here. And while, relatively speaking, it doesn't cost all that much to start a room, whether or not it's any good is another matter entirely.
KAYDEN RESSEL: The only thing I'm really worried about is a person going, oh, cool, escape rooms, that's a cool new thing. And then they go and try a really bad one, and then they're like, escape rooms suck - because that one was really bad.
NELSON: Kayden Ressel is the young entrepreneur behind The Basement LA, a horror-themed escape room in the LA suburb of Sylmar. The Basement relies on live actors and a meticulously detailed set to turn a plain warehouse into something that feels genuinely creepy.
RESSEL: This is something that someone in their early 20s, or late-20s or early 30s can go do with their friends. It's a social thing to do on a Friday night that isn't going to a bar and getting drunk. And everyone has to put their phones away, and everyone has to interact with each other.
NELSON: Back in the castle, Amy Hartman and her friends have gotten stuck.
HARTMAN: I was so excited. We were getting stuff done. Anything interesting in these books?
NELSON: Until Hartman has a flash of insight.
HARTMAN: Wait. Wait, wait, wait - OK, hold on. What were the three that were oppressed (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nice.
NELSON: The clues all come together. I'd say what exactly, but, you know - spoilers.
HARTMAN: We're free.
NELSON: For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.
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