Escape Rooms, The New Escapism

Trapped inside a room with five total strangers—that’s entertainment!

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I volunteered to be locked in a room with five strangers. And why not? It seems everyone is doing it. Escape rooms—timed puzzles that require wits and teamwork to prevail—have emerged all over New Jersey in recent years.

Checking it out seemed like a good idea until our hosts at Escape AC—New Jersey natives and business and romantic partners, Lisa Benninger and Steve Peto—explained their own introduction to the concept. On a trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, they visited an escape room at a former Gestapo outpost. Say what?

Still, I was game. After all, Escape AC is in the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. At worst, I would blow through $35 and an hour of my time—after which I could safely ride the elevator to the casino floor and have a drink.

I am typically skeptical of entertainment outside of the comfort zone of theaters and restaurants. I don’t gamble, hate video games, never go to amusement parks and have little patience for board games. I approached my first escape-room experience expecting it to fall somewhere between mildly engaging and cringingly cheesy.

Escape AC has four Atlantic City-themed rooms: the Poker Room, the Boardwalk, the Casino Cage and Backstage. The owners took great care in creating attractive, clever spaces with authentic Jersey ephemera like Prohibition-era newspaper clippings and Boardwalk signs. Each room can accommodate up to 10 people. Feel free to come with your own group.

My team, corralled in the attractive waiting room, was antsy and eager as we listened to the guidelines: Split up, but work together; be mindful of the clock; everything is potentially a clue; nothing is what it seems.

We were assigned the Poker Room, the most difficult challenge. Our hosts ushered us into a well-appointed space with the clubby look of an old-fashioned gambling den. The door closed ominously behind us. Multiple locks—some with combinations, some requiring keys—secured the exit. We had 60 minutes to get out, using the clues stashed within the room.

My teammates and I began scouring the room for clues. We made a plan: Call out anything you see that might be relevant, and keep moving.

At first, we went for the obvious. We looked in boxes, opened books, felt along the walls. We searched under tables, scrutinized knickknacks, even crawled on the floor. Some clues would help us find the keys; others might suggest the digits on the combination locks.

When I found the first key, we high fived as if I’d scored a winning goal. Still, we had a long way to go. The challenge was proving insanely hard. The clock was ticking. It would take all of our collective smarts to connect the dots and make our escape.

At one point, we thought we had cracked the code. But to our dismay, there were more challenges in store.

And then the clock ran out.

Despite our failure, I left Escape AC feeling engaged, stimulated and entertained. Curiously, it struck me as an exercise in mindfulness. For one hour, six strangers focused on a single task—albeit a meaningless one. We let go of our worries and our cell phones (they are banned). We collaborated, laughed and cheered. We interacted face-to-face—a rarity in these days of social media.

In a sense, we escaped.

Escape AC, Tropicana Hotel, 2831 Boardwalk, Atlantic City; 609-246-7772. Must be 18 or over.

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