A friend had been wrongly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit. A group of my friends and I were sure the warden was in cahoots with the inmates to suppress evidence to prove his innocence. So, desperate to get to the truth, we broke into the warden’s office while he was on his lunch break and frantically worked together to find the evidence we needed to free our friend and nail the real criminal. We had to work together closely – and quickly – because we only had an hour. We had to have all hands, all eyes and all minds on deck.
That was the scenario for “Imprisoned,” one of five themed rooms at Auburn Escape Zones, the newest and most fun group activity in East Alabama. Each escape room presents a different theme with a story. Six to eight people work together to find clues that can be anywhere and on anything with an obvious or perhaps a not-so-obvious meaning. Clues or solutions to puzzles could unlock a lock, add a piece to a puzzle, solve a math problem or open up a whole new clue. It takes everybody working together to escape from the room within the allotted time of just 60 minutes.
Dave and Ashley McCrary’s son, Jackson, initially introduced the idea through a school project at Auburn High School.
“Jackson was in an entrepreneur class at AHS, and their project was to find a need and fill it,” says Ashley. “From his research, he came up with an entertainment venue that would be fun for groups. The more we talked about his ‘idea,’ the more we started talking like it could really happen, and that started the process of eventually making his school project a reality.”
The couple reached out to their good friends, Troy and Jill Howard in Birmingham to share their thoughts and get their insight. The Howards were intrigued. And very interested.
“We drew the original concept on a napkin,” says Jill. “Then we prayed about it.”
The two families believed they could make this venture work, but they were not interested in a franchise. They wanted to build everything themselves and come up with their own puzzles and clues. They brainstormed about room designs, scenarios, and the intricate and very detailed clues and puzzles to bring the rooms to life.
Space was secured at 1234 Commerce Drive, right on the Auburn-Opelika line, and the two families began the many, many (many) hours of work and creativity to bring each room to life in amazing detail. From a jail cell to a night in the woods, nothing was overlooked in the construction of the rooms. The adults and children worked hand-in-hand with every aspect of every room, including themes, concepts, and building and creating scenarios and clues.
The story in The Cabin Room is based on a real-life event that happened to Dave and Ashley’s brother-in-law when he was hunting alone and was bitten by a rattlesnake. Blackbeard’s Brig is for those who like linear puzzles and Imprisoned is a great room for first-timers.
Recently completed is a new concept of four-member teams competing against each other (and the clock) in two identical Superhero rooms, and the Mission Impossible room is scheduled to open this summer. There are also plans to add a Mystery Dinner Theatre in the very near future.
“Escape Zones brings back game night,” says Dave. “We provide a live, interactive and fun game experience to build a better connection with your team, your spouse, your teenager(s), your neighbors, your colleagues or your extended family.”
Auburn Escape Zones opened in May 2016 and was an instant hit in the community. About a third of the clientele are corporate groups using the rooms for team building and professional development. College students, families, church youth groups, organizations, groups of friends, couples on date night and even complete strangers who join other players, all work together to escape from the rooms in the allotted time. The building also has a designated “break out” room for birthday parties, meals, meetings, debriefings, etc., and food can be brought in or catered from the outside.
“After a lot of prayer, consideration and hours upon hours of hard work, Auburn Escape Zones became a reality,” says Jill.
Troy says the goal of Auburn Escape Zones is to provide an active fun entertainment option that challenges, frustrates and thoroughly entertains the participants.
“Our facility is designed to be a family-friendly environment created for fun, interactive games that can be enjoyed by people with a wide range of physical and mental abilities,” he says. “We want everybody to leave totally amazed, surprised and laughing and talking about their experience for days afterwards.”
While teams work on clues and puzzles, an employee is stationed in a booth with cameras to observe and offer up to three clues, upon request. Each room has a computer screen on the wall that displays a timer as well as any hints or clues. Ashley says a lot can be learned just from observing.
“We had a group of top-level executives in a room together, and there was no way they were going to escape because they wouldn’t work together to find clues or put puzzles together,” she says. “It was amazing to see how protective they were of what they knew or had found. We have had businesses give a personality assessment before dividing up and then separating the team into groups of various personalities; those are almost always super successful. It’s a very powerful way to see how people work – or don’t work – together.”
Auburn Escape Zones has quickly become a popular entertainment venue for people in Opelika, Auburn and surrounding areas, giving the Howards and the McCrarys continued motivation to keep coming up with fresh ideas for new rooms, clues and puzzles.
“We asked God to guide us and bless the business,” says Troy. “He answered our prayers in so many ways, including how blessed we have been with amazing customers and employees. We have also been so welcomed and embraced by the Auburn community.”
“God has truly blessed our efforts, and it is such a joy to watch others have fun doing something we created,” says Jill.
Kate Asbury Larkin
Kate is a native of Opelika and is the outreach cooridnator for the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Auburn Alumni Association at Auburn University. She is a 1982 graduate of Ole Miss and a 1987 graduate of Troy State (now Troy University). Kate has two children, Anna Asbury, 27 and Bo, 25.