An experiment at a secret research facility in Napa has gone terribly wrong. To prevent the spread of a virus, the lead scientist has quarantined himself and his lab about to explode. Can you disarm the bomb, cure the scientist and save the world from destruction?
The quest may sound like something from a science-fiction movie, but it’s actually part of a live adventure game that anyone in Napa can play.
It takes place in an escape room in the Riverfront Shopping Center. Called The Grape Escape, the new business was created by Napans Shannon and Rick Johnson.
What’s an escape room?
“It’s a group activity where teams progress through a series of rooms by solving cryptic clues and puzzles to escape or complete an objective,” explained Shannon Johnson. Each room has a unique theme and is designed to be completely immersive and challenging, she said.
According to RoomEscapeArtist.com, at the end of 2014, there were approximately two dozen escape room facilities in the United States. Today, that number has grown to more than 2,300, with more than 300 in California and 11 in San Francisco alone.
Napa’s Grape Escape, which opened on June 30, features three themed rooms.
The secret research facility “escape” is part of an escape room called XCAPE-Z51. The second escape room is called Uncle Tick Tock’s Circus escape, featuring a traveling circus theme and challenge. The third — Kraken Casino — has a steampunk futuristic theme.
Teams of four to eight people enter one of the three rooms at the Grape Escape and have 60 minutes to look for clues, codes and ciphers, solve puzzles, complete the objective and “escape” the room.
The rooms are highly detailed and include props, furniture, music, video, light and other effects. It’s sort of like being on an interactive Disneyland dark ride or in a haunted house but one where you are in charge of the action.
“There’s a lot going on in these rooms,” said Johnson. “It’s a rush; it’s fun.”
Shannon Johnson said she and her husband got the idea to open an escape room after visiting another such room in Newport, Oregon.
Her husband was initially hesitant. “He said, ‘this is going to be lame,’” she recalled.
“But it was so much fun,” said Rick Johnson. “And we did another, and another and another.”
The couple, along with their two children, Heather and Tim, ages 18 and 16, started visiting escape rooms all over the state, plus in such cities as Chicago and Las Vegas.
“They’re everywhere,” Shannon said.
“There’s no other entertainment like it,” Rick said.
Escape room themes run the gamut from horror to whimsical, zombie, space adventure, time warp, treasure hunter, magic, Sherlock Holmes or even movie themes like “Taken.”
This motivated the Johnsons to open their own escape room in Napa.
“There’s not a lot to do in the valley” for families and kids, Shannon said.
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The couple wanted to create something fun for kids and families of all ages, plus a place for team-building exercises and wine country visitors.
After buying equipment and themed materials from a company called Legendary Escape Games, the project was launched.
“It’s about wanting to do something that would connect people,” said Shannon. It’s meant to be a place to make memories, “where nobody is on their phones,” but are instead engaged and communicating with each other.
This isn’t their first small business. The Johnsons also own R&S Glazing Specialties, Inc. of American Canyon. The family lives in Napa.
From running R&S, both have gained business sense and experience, Shannon said. That business has been a success and “I’ve learned a ton.”
Plus, “Rick and I are very creative,” she said.
The Grape Escape experience starts in the lobby, which has a Disneyland Haunted Mansion vibe with purple upholstery and black and purple flocked wallpaper. Johnson wanted more of an upscale look for their escape room, she said. She said she felt visitors to Napa who are accustomed to spending money on wine and fine dining “are going to want a step up” from a basement or bare bones style escape room as seen in other cities.
To that end, the couple has invested approximately $200,000 in their new business. The details show. For example, instead of painting an illustration of a “Kraken” on one escape room door, they had a 3-D carved rendering created. The circus room features real toys, draperies and other furnishings. The XCAPE room includes real medical equipment, clothing and other items. Sound and lighting adds to the mood.
“This isn’t your typical escape room experience,” said Shannon.
She said she does not think the Grape Escape experience is frightening. “I’d say it’s exhilarating. There are startles but it’s not scary.”
No one is actually locked in the room. There is an exit in case someone needs a break or becomes uncomfortable. In a control room, Grape Escape staff observes the action in each room via video monitors and can talk to the players inside each if necessary.
If a repeat customer visits all three rooms, they may feel like they’ve “done” the Grape Escape, she acknowledged. However, the experience changes depending on who is in the group and working to solve the puzzles.
The business also tracks “teams” who repeat the game, posting fastest times to a leader board.
The Johnsons plan to change up the rooms every 12 to 18 months. They may even add a mobile escape room experience that could travel to parties, homes or other locations. For birthdays or meetings, the Grape Escape includes an onsite “party” or meeting room with kitchenette space.
Shannon and Rick said working with their children in the escape room has been a big benefit. It’s a way to spend time together as a family, they said, and for the kids to gain business and work experience.
Running two businesses is hard work, they said. But “seeing our kids working and smiling and laughing,” and sharing the experience with customers, “it just brings joy,” said Rick.
Admission to the Grape Escape runs $35 per adult or $30 per student, military or senior. Participants younger than 14 years old must be accompanied by an adult inside the room. Reservations are recommended.
Johnson said her goal is for customers to leave saying, “That was one of the best rooms I’ve been to.’ That’s when you feel you did it right.”