Host An Escape Room
By Jason Lang
Founded by Quakers in the 1700s, East Goshen Township is a suburban community located 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, Penn. Its rolling green hills are dotted by many historical properties, most prominent of which is the blacksmith shop. Built in 1740 of stone and beam shaped by hand, it was the most important building of its day.
Blacksmiths shaped iron for horseshoes, wheels for wagons, and tools for everyday use. Today, its silhouette adorns the township logo, and it is seen by thousands of people driving by in their cars each day. The problem, however, was that no one ever got out of the cars to visit the blacksmith shop.
The township Department of Parks and Recreation has a completely different problem. It has an amazing new playground space that is constantly spinning with youthful laughter. There is a robust senior-citizen programming that is well-attended and constantly expanding. Nonetheless, the department’s teen programming always falls flat—it’s simply seen as irrelevant; activities are perceived as being for little kids or active older adults.
The township is fortunate to have both a historical commission and a poet laureate. In 2018, Nancy Daversa was named the newest poet laureate; she was also a former historical commission member. Coupling her love for the written word with her adoration for local history, she proposed a program that would solve the problem—an Escape the Blacksmith Shop activity!
Rolling Out The Details
The Escape the Blacksmith Shop activity was driven by the often-told story that a ghost was haunting the 300-year-old building, and searching in vain for a way out. If only a group of hearty souls could come along to help set her free. Utilizing props accumulated over decades of historical-event management, a late-1700s, period-appropriate series of clues and riddles were developed. Clues led to a series of numbers that—if the group was successful—would unlock a door, setting the group and ghost free!
Unlocking the door led participants into the blacksmith shop’s second chamber, where the township blacksmith was hard at work forging iron in 2,000-degree coals. It was very satisfying to see the participants, who had driven by the blacksmith shop for years, truly relish the opportunity to see this wonderful craftsman ply his trade. In the most shocking turn of events, the final group was composed of two parents with five teenagers. The teenagers were so enthralled by the blacksmith’s demonstration and discussion that the parents left, grabbed a cup of coffee, and then returned to their kids, who did not want to leave!
Once word spread that the department had developed the new activity, excitement grew in unexpected places. Instagram and Twitter feeds began blowing up with questions from teens … from teens. Registration was capped at 70 participants, selling out within 45 minutes! As Marie D’Antonio, mother of four teenagers, puts it, “I signed up because I thought it would be a fun event for the family. My kids love escape rooms, and I thought the blacksmith shop would be an interesting place to have it, knowing it has some haunting history. Each kid got to invite a friend, and everyone had a great time. It was better than we expected, and we are all waiting for the next event.”
Host Your Own Event
Interested in hosting your own escape room? Here are some suggestions:
Identify a target audience before all other details are undertaken because it will drive the storyline. Daversa sums it best: “The trick to a successful escape room is to have a storyline about a local mystery, ghost, or for a certain age group. Then make fun clues, perhaps in poetry form, for all age groups.”
Use props to reinforce thematic elements and immerse participants in the experience. As Daversa describes, “Make them intriguing and learning tools that your guest can relate to. A cipher wheel or a letter with a message hidden in the writing is common in movies or books.”
Be sure to market the escape room to the intended audience. A group of young professionals interested in this activity will have very different expectations than a mixed group with young children. Be sure to communicate age minimums, anticipated fright factor, and other programmatic details in marketing efforts.
Choose a good escape-room location. Does it add to the ambience? Can you highlight the space in some way? Not everyone has a 300-year-old blacksmith shop, but be creative! You might have a park, barn, creek, or boardwalk that could be transformed. Even if there’s only a carpeted program room to work with, just go for it. Think about lighting. Blacking out facility windows can heighten the experience, but balance darkness with the need to keep the event safe. At the blacksmith shop activity each participant was given a battery-powered candle that popped on just at the right time via a wireless remote.
Set a price that reflects the quality of the program and also the demand for escape rooms. We set the participant fee at $5, which was a mistake. While the program was still revenue-neutral, participants remarked afterwards that they had paid upwards of $50 for other experiences, and the “municipal” experience could have been priced much higher. Factor in expenses and policies regarding cost recovery, but one might easily charge $25 to $30 without negatively affecting registration.
Use specific time blocks that allow for an introduction, activity time, and reorganization of props. Thirty-minute time blocks allow ample time to enjoy the experience before meandering over to view the blacksmith’s demonstration.
Have someone prep each group before entering the escape room. Be creative and incorporate the storyline, but be sure that the audience has the needed information for a safe and enjoyable experience. For East Goshen Township, that was reminding everyone they were inside a 300-year-old building, and they should gingerly interact with their surroundings.
An Instant Success
For park and recreation professionals, escape rooms are programmatic gold. They appeal to a multitude of populations, can be adapted to any community’s physical environment, and allow for an unending level of creativity. A simple online search will pull up years’ worth of escape-room theming ideas. On the holistic side, escape rooms encourage communication, collaboration, and teamwork. They have the potential to bring divergent groups together through shared experiences. Additionally, they offer an interesting avenue to exercise an individual’s cognitive abilities and spread his or her interpersonal wings.
Here at East Goshen Township, the park department’s tagline is “In the Business of Making Memories.” We’ve hosted many interesting, zany, and noteworthy programs—but none with the degree of success as the escape room. It introduced a new generation to the blacksmith shop. It brought families together through a frightfully, exciting adventure. It provided a beautiful, memory-making experience that residents will be talking about long into the future.
Jason Lang, CPRE, is the Director of Parks and Recreation for East Goshen Township in Pennsylvania. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.