OK, so … there’s this room. Well, it’s not a room, per se. I mean, it is a room, but it’s more than a room. It’s a series of rooms. And the rooms are full of clues and hints. And you have to figure them all out in order to get out of the room.

Some of the clues and hints seem impossibly vague and indecipherable. Others seem simple at first until you realize that they mean … nothing. You become confused, frustrated and puzzled, sometimes all at the same time. Eventually, though, you feel triumphant, vindicated, elated. It is, as Winston Churchill once said, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Oh, and you pay $25 a head to do this.

It’s a great time. Trust us.

Welcome to Old Town Escape, the newest kid on the entertainment block in Mankato. As the name suggests, it’s nestled in Old Town. And it’s part of trend in entertainment picking up some momentum around the country.

Old Town Escape is an “escape room.” The idea is this: You’re put into a setting and you have to solve whatever mystery the room creators have concocted.

At Old Town Escape, they’ve come up with a scenario where … well … this is where things get tricky. They’re asking us, for obvious reasons, to be a little vague about the scenario, so we’ll just use this blurb from their website, oldtownescape.com: “The scene is an early 1970s Mankato Post Office. The postmaster has mysteriously vanished, leaving a series of cryptic puzzles behind. During your investigation, your team becomes locked in the back room. Solve the mystery to unlock the door in 60 minutes so the mail can be delivered on time!”

Now, just to be clear, no one is ever truly “locked” in the back room. You can leave whenever you want. But being locked in is part of the scenario. So the idea is that you buy into that scenario and start scouring the room for clues.

The Old Town Escape proprietorial team of Chris Larson, Michelle May, Russell Depuydt, Colleen Depuydt and Kathleen May got the idea for the new business after going through a few escape rooms themselves.

“We were up north in Park Rapids at a cabin and we happened to see an article in the paper about an escape room,” she said. “We thought we’d give it a try.”

That Park Rapids location was Evergreen Gifts and Funpark. In addition to go-karts and batting cages, they’ve got the FDR Bunker Escape Room. Participants are transported back in time to 1940 – “It was really adorable. The host had a little wand and said “OK, ‘Now you’re being transported back to 1940!’ She was really cute.”

“After we did it, we couldn’t stop talking about it,” said Russell Depuydt. “We said we should start one of these in Mankato. So the first thing we did when we got back to Mankato was look for buildings we could buy.”

It didn’t take them long to come up with one. Just across the street and a few doors down from the Coffee Hag, Old Town Escape gives them a location that’s easy to find and with some room to grown. They also own the apartments above.

“We found this one the first week,” Depuydt said.

Added Chris Larson, “I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that we’re in Old Town. There are a lot of eclectic businesses down here and it definitely fits the area.”

The group said they’ve tried a handful of escape rooms. And now, whenever they travel, they do some research to see if where they’re going has one nearby. They said that, compared to others they’ve tried, Old Town Escape and the mildly creepy mail room is above average in terms of difficulty.

They said they’ve been to others that are much easier and a few that are cruelly difficult.

The escape room concept, according to several major media outlets, was born in Japan. After zipping through Asia it hit the states in 2012. Today there are currently about 400 rooms at 138 facilities in the U.S., and more are opening all the time.

The Old Town group is hoping word gets out to the student population in town. Also, they’re hoping businesses see the escape room as a way to do team-building exercises for employees. With the kind of clues and hints given throughout the room, different kinds of minds will do better figuring out different clues. Logical people might do better with numbers, creative types may do better with wordplay clues, etc. It takes a team full of diverse mind types to efficiently navigate the escape room.

They’re also hoping to expand.

Given the nature of an escape room, it’s the kind of thing you can only do once unless the scenario changes. The clues you work to figure out would be known the second time around, rendering your $25 per person entry fee rather pointless. So, if it catches on, their plan is to add a second room and then keep changing the scenarios to keep things fresh.

Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or rmurray@mankatofreepress.com. Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb

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